There was a time, not too long ago, when moms raising vegan or vegetarian kids were viewed as kooks. Even today, news stories abound of meat-free parenting gone awry, like a vegan mom in Florida arrested for refusing to take her dehydrated infant to the hospital since that might expose him to animal products in formula. Still, the tide is slowly turning.
"About a decade ago the thought of raising a child vegetarian or vegan was considered a risky move," says Carolina Jantac, RD, registered and licensed dietitian and spokesperson for KidCritics.com, which awards seals of approval to foods that pass health and taste standards for kids. "But nowadays more people are jumping in the bandwagon." And many experts say raising kids with these dietary restrictions can be safe, provided parents take a few precautions.
"There is a lot of nutrition needs for your baby in the first two years, as this time frame is critical in growth and brain development," says Jill Castle, MS, RDN, pediatric dietitian/nutritionist at Bundoo.com, a site where parents can connect with pediatricians and other medical experts. "So care and attention to planning out the diet for a vegetarian or vegan baby is essential to ensuring the overall health of the child." Here are five rules to keep in mind for every stage of a baby's development, from in utero on up.
During pregnancy ... "The first thing I'd advise any vegan or vegetarian woman who's thinking of becoming pregnant, even before they are pregnant, is to consult with a dietitian who can test her blood levels of calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and folate," says Jantac. For vegan moms, levels of DHA, a nutrient important for vision and brain development found mainly in fish, should also be checked. "Vegans may get some DHA from flax seed, chia seeds, and hemp hearts, but it probably won't be enough," says Jantac. If a mom finds out her diet is lacking in any nutrients, she can change her habits to get what she needs from fortified foods (many soy milks and cereals are fortified with B12 and calcium) or supplements. A prenatal vitamin may cover most of these nutritional needs, but often don't contain enough B12 for vegans (the RDA for B12 during pregnancy is 2.6 micrograms per day). "Vegans will likely need to supplement further with additional B12," says Jennifer Lincoln, an OB/GYN at Bundoo.com. "These can be found in the form of animal-free supplements at vitamin stores, fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, and fortified soy milk."
If you breastfeed ... To a large extent, the nutritional rules for pregnant vegans and vegetarians also apply to the breastfeeding stage: Whatever supplements you were taking or diet you were following back then should continue. "Only because nursing takes such a toll on the body -- and because vegans and vegetarians eat a much more calorie controlled diet -- they have to ramp up their fat and caloric intake to make sure they can produce breast milk," says Jantac. While the exact amount varies, most will need to add another 300 to 500 calories to their daily diet. "Fat is probably one of the hardest ones to get enough of, but vegan moms can bulk up with avocados, extra virgin olive oil, and nuts," says Jantac.
If you use formula ... "Formula today tends to be very nutritionally complete, whether they're made of cow milk or -- for vegans -- soy milk," says Jantac. Nonetheless, "Pediatricians will typically recommend supplements of iron and vitamin D for the baby on top of formula." While some natural-minded moms may be leery of the phytoestrogen in soy, Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, nutrition adviser for the Vegetarian Resource Group, points out, "Soy formula has been used for 50 or more years where researchers have followed babies who've had it well into adulthood. They haven't seen any effect of soy formula on fertility or feminization. There's no evidence it's a problem." Vegan moms should not try to get baby by on rice or almond milk. "They don't have enough protein, fat, calcium, vitamins, or minerals that babies need," says Jantac. "From zero to one, babies need mother's milk or infant formula. Every once in awhile I see a 6-month-old whose mom felt it was fine to go off formula. It's amazing how quickly you start to see slow growth and weakness."
Once baby's eating food ... Once solid food enters the picture at around six months, vegetarian and particularly vegan moms need to keep a close eye on iron. "For a baby age 0 to 6, the RDA for iron is .27 milligrams a day, which is the same amount in breast milk," says Mangels. "From six months to a year, that jumps to 11 milligrams a day." While iron is rich in meat and eggs, vegan and vegetarian moms can find it in fortified orange juice, cereals, and tofu (which is also typically fortified with other important nutrients like B12), as well as naturally in spinach, collard greens, and legumes like lentils and beans. "The goal is to offer two servings of iron-rich foods per day," says Castle. "After a year, provide one to two sources a day. And since plant-based sources of iron are absorbed less efficiently than animal sources, offer a vitamin C food -- orange juice, cantaloupe, mango -- alongside iron foods, as vitamin C helps with iron absorption."
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Once baby is a year old ... Since kids this age are getting more active, it's important to make sure that vegetarian -- especially vegan -- kids get enough protein. So make sure to serve up plenty of beans, lentils, hummus, tofu, nuts, and soy meat analogues (i.e., meatless “chicken” nuggets and veggie burgers). "Some kids may also need to focus on getting enough calories, since a plant-based diet can be very high in fiber and low in calories; thus, kids can fill up quickly before getting enough calories to support energy needs," says Sharon Palmer, RD, author of Plant-Powered for Life. "In that case, offer a few lower fiber choices, such as breads and crackers, and healthy fats, such as nut butters, extra virgin olive oil in cooking, and avocado."
Last but not least, vegan and vegetarian moms should take special care to get regular checkups for their child to track their growth and blood levels for nutrients (like iron). "That way you can be sure that what you're doing at home is translating to good growth and development," says Castle.
Did you raise a vegan or vegetarian baby?
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