Is A Vegan Diet Suitable For Children?

While it’s unclear exactly how many children and adults follow a vegan diet in the UK, the general consensus it that this plant based diet is on the rise. In fact, the The Vegan Society reports that there are currently 600,000 vegans (1.16% of the population) in Great Britain. However, the Office for National Statistics have not undertaken new surveys focusing on the vegetarian and vegan population in recent years, so much of the available data refers back to 2012. What we do know however, is that according to Google searches, interest in the vegan diet has increased seven fold in the last number of years and now gets almost four times more interest than vegetarian and gluten free searches. 

In 2021, over 58 thousand people signed up to take part in Veganuary (a campaign run by The Vegan Society, which encourages individuals to follow a vegan diet for the month of January). This number increased significantly, compared with previous years of the campaign. The number of vegan food products has also increased dramatically in recent years. For example, in 2019 one in four new food products on the market were suitable for those following a vegan diet. 


What is a vegan diet?

According to the NHS, a vegan diet contains only plants (such as vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits) and foods made from plants.

A vegan diet excludes foods that come from animals, such as:

  • meat
  • fish
  • dairy products such as cows’ (or other animal) milk
  • milk products, such as cheese and yoghurt
  • eggs or foods containing eggs
  • honey
  • any foods which contain gelatin or animal fats
  • products fortified with vitamins that have come from an animal source (for example, vitamin D derived from sheep wool- lanolin).

What are the differences between vegan and vegetarian diets?


What are the recommendations for vegan children?

Infants and young children, in particular, need enough energy (calories) to grow and be active, and enough nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals) to ensure they remain healthy. It is possible for infants and children to get all the nutrition they need from a plant-based diet, but it does take careful planning.

It’s important for families to seek advice on diet and health from an appropriate health professional, and receive guidance if using specialist vegan supplements, e.g. vitamin drops, to ensure the dosage is correct. It’s also essential that early years staff (nursery, childminders) speak to parents and understand what children can and cannot eat.


Eating well in the first 6 months

Breast milk meets all the nutritional needs of infants in the first 6 months of life.

There are no infant formulas suitable for vegan infants currently for sale in the UK because, even if they contain no animal-derived ingredients (for example, if they are made from soya rather than cows’ milk), the vitamin D that is added to them is sourced from sheep’s wool.

The following should also be considered for other infant formulas:

  • Soya-based infant formula is suitable for vegetarian infants, but should not be given to infants under 6 months of age, and not used as the main milk drink for infants until they are over the age of 1, unless recommended by a health professional.
  • Although soya- based milks are available, there is no evidence that they prevent food allergies or intolerance. They’re not recommended for infants who have a cows’ milk intolerance, as these infants may be, or may become, allergic to soya protein too.
  • Soya-based formulas are more likely to cause dental decay, as they contain glucose rather than lactose. There are also some concerns about the high levels of phyto-oestrogens which can pose a risk to future reproductive health.
  • A rice-based infant formula is available in Europe but this is not currently approved for sale in the UK. Families who buy this formula should be advised that the instructions for making the powdered milk up safely are not in line with UK recommendations and they should seek advice from a health professional. Any milk alternative made from rice that is not a highly modified formula (e.g. rice drinks), must not be offered to children under 5 due to the arsenic content.
  • Unsweetened calcium-fortified soya milk alternative can be used in cooking for vegan children from 6 months, but it should not be used as the main milk drink until children are over the age of 1. Breast milk, or an appropriate first infant formula, should remain the main milk drink from 6-12 months.

Ref: First Steps Nutrition Trust, NHS


Eating well for vegan infants- from 6 months

The recommended age to introduce vegan and vegetarian babies to solid foods is around 6 months (the same advice for non vegan and vegetarian babies). 

First foods for babies around 6 months of age should include a wide range of unprocessed foods, including vegetables, potatoes, cereal foods (such as rice, oats, polenta, semolina, pearl barley), pulses (peas, beans and lentils), tofu, ground nuts (whole nuts should not be offered to under 5’s due to the risk of choking), ground seeds, and fruits.

Check out our FREE weaning e-guide or book a space on one of upcoming weaning webinars!

  • Salt, sugar and artificial sweeteners should not be added to foods for babies.
  • Naturally sweet fruits (such as apples or bananas) and vegetables (such as carrots, sweet potatoes or butternut squash) can be used to sweeten foods, rather than adding sugar.
  • If using commercial baby foods (such as jars and pouches), follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Just be mindful that these foods are usually expensive, less nutritious, primarily sweet and often very smooth, compared to foods you can make yourself at home.

Check out our blog Baby Foods – A review of homemade and shop-bought food for more information.


Important nutrients in vegan diets for 1-4 year olds

The following nutrients need to be considered for those following a vegan diet:

Iron

Iron is essential for the function of several bodily systems, particularly the pigmentation of red blood cells, called haemoglobin, which carry oxygen. A deficiency in iron can cause anaemia. This results in less oxygenated blood,  meaning the body receives less oxygen than it needs, which limits our ability to be physically active. Children with iron deficiency will often appear pale, tired and their general health, resistance to infection, appetite and vitality will be impaired. It’s important to speak to a healthcare professional if you are concerned about your child’s iron levels.

Suitable sources of iron for vegan children include:

  • fortified cereals (some may contain Vitamin D which may not be suitable for vegans based on how it is sourced)
  • dark-green leafy vegetables e.g. kale
  • wholegrains, such as wholemeal bread and brown rice (please note that children need a variety of white and wholemeal)
  • beans and lentils
  • smooth nut butters
  • tofu
  • quinoa
  • dried fruit, such as apricots and figs. Remember: offer these with meals, rather than as a snack between meals, to help prevent tooth decay.

Tip: The absorption of iron may be enhanced if foods or drinks rich in vitamin C are consumed at the same meal e.g. pepper, broccoli, cabbage, kiwifruit, pineapple.


Protein

Protein is needed for growth, maintaining and repairing body tissues, and to make the enzymes that control many bodily functions. Good sources of protein for children who eat some animal foods include dairy, eggs and fish. 

Vegan children can get enough protein as long as they eat a good variety of foods each day. Plant foods that contain protein include:

  • beans and lentils, and foods made from them – such as tofu, hummus and soya mince
  • soya milk alternative and yoghurt (unsweetened varieties)
  • seeds
  • finely ground nuts or smooth nut butters.

Please note: if your child already has a diagnosed food allergy, or there is a history of allergies in your child’s immediate family – including asthma, eczema or hayfever, talk to your health visitor or GP before offering foods containing peanuts for the first time.


Calcium

Requirements for calcium are high in children aged 1-4 years. It’s needed for building and maintaining good bone health, for the transmission of nerve impulses, muscle actions and for many other bodily functions. Whole milk and full-fat dairy products are a good source of calcium, but suitable alternatives for vegan children include:

  • unsweetened calcium-fortified plant- based milks, such as soya drinks, from the age of 1 as part of a balanced diet (rice milk is not suitable for children under 5 years)
  • green leafy vegetables – such as broccoli, cabbage and okra, but not spinach
  • soya bean curd/ tofu (only if set with calcium chloride (E509) or calcium sulphate (E516), not nigari)
  • ground almonds and smooth almond butter
  • sesame seeds and tahini
  • dried fruit (only offer as part of main meals to help protect children’s teeth)
  • pluses
  • bread and anything made with fortified flour.


Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 interacts with folate and vitamin B6. Together, these vitamins help the body to build up its own protein. B12 is essential for the formation of red blood cells and a healthy nervous system. It’s mainly found in animal foods, including eggs, cheese and milk.

Children may show signs of a B12 deficiency more rapidly than adults. Deficiency may lead to a loss of energy and appetite and failure to thrive and, if not corrected quickly, it can lead to permanent damage. Currently recommendations for the amount of vitamin B12 needed in fortified foods, or as a supplement, vary. Speak to a Health Care Professional to see if your child needs a supplement, alongside the fortified foods you’re offering.

Foods that are often fortified with vitamin B12, include:

  • breakfast cereals,
  • soya yoghurts, and non-dairy milks such as soya, oat and almond (300-400ml of fortified unsweetened milk alternatives will provide adequate vitamin B12 (about 1.5 micrograms a day))
  • yeast extract– choose a brand with no added salt.

It’s always best to speak to your GP if you’re worried that your child may have a vitamin B12 deficiency.


Iodine

Iodine is essential for the production of the hormone thyroxine, which affects the function of the thyroid gland. It’s used to regulate the body’s metabolism, and affects the heart rate, body temperature and how the body uses energy from food. It’s also important for brain development.

Iodine is found in a range of foods, the richest sources being fish and dairy products. Seaweed is a concentrated source of iodine, but it can provide excessive amounts (particularly so in the case of brown seaweed, such as kelp) and therefore eating seaweed more than once a week is not recommended, especially during pregnancy. White fish contains more iodine than oily fish. Milk and dairy products are the main sources of iodine for most people.

Soya milk is rarely fortified with iodine (check the label) and therefore will not replace the iodine in cows’ milk. Vegetarians and particularly vegans are at risk of iodine deficiency as they don’t eat rich iodine sources (fish and/or dairy products).

Plant-based sources of iodine suitable for vegans include:

  • cereals and grains, such as whole wheat and rye. However, the levels of iodine in these foods vary widely and relying on these alone will not provide sufficient iodine.

All vegans need to ensure that there is a source of iodine in their diets because the content of most plant foods is low and variable. According to The Vegan Society,  children aged one to three years old need 70mcg (micrograms) of iodine per day, and four to six year olds need 100mcg per day. A supplement can provide a reliable source of iodine. It’s best to seek advice from a health professional because it is important that your child doesn’t have too much iodine.


Omega-3

Omega-3s are a family of fats that are important for our health. They’re mainly found in oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel.

Other sources of omega-3 include:

  • flaxseed (linseed) oil
  • rapeseed oil
  • soya oil and soya-based foods, such as tofu
  • walnuts – offer these ground or as a nut butter for children under 5 to reduce the risk of choking
  • eggs enriched with omega-3 (for non vegan children).

Omega-3 fats are found in both animal and vegetable foods, but vegetable sources of omega-3 fats do not provide the same fatty acids as those from animal (fish) sources.

Although alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is present in vegetable oils and seeds such as rapeseed, soy, flaxseed, hemp, chia and walnuts for example, ALA is poorly converted into DHA and EPA – the fatty acids that are associated with better heart health and that are found in fish oils. Any health consequence of lower amounts of DHA and EPA in vegans is poorly understood, but eating a good mixed diet, including good sources of ALA, is recommended. Micro-algal sources of omega-3 fats have been suggested for vegans, but the impact of these on health is not yet known.


Vitamin supplements for children

The Department of Health recommends that all children aged 6 months* to 5 years are given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day.

It’s also recommended that babies who are being breastfed are given a daily vitamin D supplement from birth, whether or not mums are taking a supplement containing vitamin D. 

Vitamin D2 is suitable for babies and children who have a vegan diet, and you can also get supplements containing vitamin D3 derived from lichen. It is important to speak to your health visitor for advice on vitamin drops for babies and young children. 

*Babies who are having more than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day don’t need vitamin supplements because formula is fortified with vitamins.

Vitamin supplements for breastfed infants

It’s recommended that all breastfed babies have a supplement of 8.5-10 micrograms of vitamin D a day from birth (or in some areas, from 1 month).

Healthy Start vitamin drops are suitable for use from birth, but vegan families may not want to use these for their infants as they include vitamin D sourced from sheep’s wool- lanolin.

Baby DDrops contain 10 micrograms of vitamin D. The manufacturers say the vitamin D is sourced from sheep’s wool lanolin, but that animals are not harmed in the process.

A number of other supplements are marketed as suitable for vegan infants – for example, Abidec and BioCare Baby A, C, D Plus drops. These supplements contain a range of other nutrients as well as vitamin D, but BioCare Baby does not provide 8.5-10 micrograms of vitamin D.

If there is any concern about vitamin D intakes specifically, then vegan vitamin D supplements are available and families should talk to their pharmacist or GP.

Vitamin supplements for 1-4 year olds

Abidec vitamin drops are suitable for vegan children. A daily recommended dose of o.6ml, will provide around 700 micrograms of vitamin A, 10 micrograms of vitamin D, 0.4mg thiamin, 0.8mg riboflavin, 0.8mg vitamin B6, 8mg niacin and 40mg vitamin C.

Families may prefer to give vitamin D separately, in the form of Vitashine spray (available from pharmacies), which provides 25 micrograms of vitamin D a- day and is within safe limits for children aged 1-4 years, providing the dose is not exceeded.

Families who wish to provide additional vitamin B12 and iodine should ask their pharmacist or another health professional for advice about a suitable supplement for their child.

Information about suitable supplements can also be found on The Vegan Society website, but families are strongly advised to seek advice from a health professional to ensure they do not provide harmful doses of any nutrients to their child.

If you’re an early years professional, you can learn more about the Vitamin D requirements for children in our blog here!


Challenges for vegan children

  • If families choose to follow a vegan diet it’s important they understand that growing children need plenty of energy (calories) and nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals) to ensure they grow and develop well.
  • Vegan diets are based on vegetable foods only, so extra care must be taken to make sure that vegan children get a good variety of foods that can provide all the nutrients they need.
  • Planning is key and parents therefore need to be very well informed to ensure they reduce the risk of vitamin D, calcium, iron and possibly vitamin B12 deficiency.
  • Vegetarian and vegan foods can be higher in fibre and lower in calories than a diet that includes meat. When it comes to starchy foods, in addition to wholegrain and wholemeal versions, children need some lower-fibre foods, such as white bread and rice, until they are 5 years old. This is because wholegrains are high in fibre and can fill children up before they have taken in enough calories and nutrients.
  • In the toddlers years, fussy eating can be common and children typically have small appetites, so achieving their daily calorie needs can be a challenge.
  • It’s important for families to liaise with a health professional if choosing a vegan diet for their child and refer to the resources listed below for practical support.


Choosing vegan products

  • If following a vegan diet, staples like grains, nuts, beans and pulses will likely take up much of the shopping trolley and unprocessed foods like these are often the easiest to determine as vegan.
  • It’s always important to read the labels when making food choices. While vegan ‘meats’ are often perceived to be healthier, on average they can contain more salt than meat burgers.
  • Any food that has been highly processed can be eaten occasionally, but do bare in mind that some vegan products have a high salt content, along with added additives and preservatives.

Vegan Breakfast Muffins