September 29, 2016

Can Kids Go Vegan?

Becky Ramsing

Becky Ramsing

Senior Program Officer, Food Communities & Public Health Program

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

2015-petition-schoollunchLast month in Italy a policymaker proposed a bill that would jail parents who impose a vegan diet on their children. The bill came on the heels of high-profile cases in which children were hospitalized for malnutrition as a result of vegan diets.

Is this extreme, or do children need meat in order to get enough protein, calcium and vitamin B-12? The popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets among young adults is growing. According to the Hartman Group, 12 percent of millennials are vegetarians, compared to 4 percent of Gen-Xers and 1 percent of Boomers. It is estimated that half of all vegetarians are vegan. And as these adults start families, they may extend their values and food choices to their children.

But children are not little adults. They have special nutrition needs for growth and development. That said, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that a vegan diet can be adequate for a child as long as extra care is taken to provide necessary nutrients, especially the supplementation of vitamin B-12.

What is a vegan diet?

A vegan diet eliminates any food that originates from animals, and looks like this:

  • No meat, fish, animal fats or gelatin
  • No dairy products such as cow’s milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, goat’s or sheep’s milk
  • No eggs or foods containing eggs
  • No honey

What are the benefits of raising your child vegan?

Personal health. There is ample evidence that plant-based diets are associated with lower body weights, lower risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Plant proteins are higher in fiber, and provide potassium, magnesium, zinc and other important nutrients and phytochemicals, which have important health protective properties.

Environmental health. Disproportionate amounts of water, land, and resources are used to raise animals for food, and nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are due to production of meat, dairy, and eggs. As meat consumption rises around the world, the environmental impact will be even more devastating to the health of our planet. A vegan diet may mitigate some of this damage to the environment.

Animal welfare. Raising enough animals to meet the demand for meat requires large, densely populated operations that lead to the use of antibiotics and other drugs to prevent disease. Animals are often raised in poor conditions that contribute to illness, stress, and contamination. A vegan diet may mitigate some animal distress and abuse.

What are the healthy diet options?

There are many ways to raise a healthy child. As humans, we are fortunate there are many kinds of healthy diets—vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, flexitarian, plant-forward or some combination.

Protein: the Right Amount and the Right Kind

Children need protein to grow. Protein needs vary depending on many factors, including rate of growth (which is not steady in children), size, age, the protein being consumed, and other dietary and physical factors. The table below shows the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for protein as children grow. You may notice that it’s not as much as you think!

Daily Protein Requirements ages 6 months to 14 years

Age RDA (g/kg) Average (grams)
6 -12 months 1.6 14 grams
1-3 years 1.2 16
4-6 years 1.1 24
7-10 1.0 28
10-14 1.0 45 males

46 females

Eating more protein than the requirement is considered safe and in most cases beneficial up to two times the RDA, which equates to 15-25 percent of total daily calories. If your child consumes a vegan diet, aiming for 25 percent more protein than the RDA is recommended because some plant-based proteins have a lower digestibility, and the RDA is based on a reference diet that is about 65 percent animal proteins.

In plant proteins, certain amino acids that are needed to build proteins in the body are limited in number. However, when eaten in combination with a variety of different foods throughout the day, the amino acid profile is complete. This is as simple as having bread with peanut butter or rice with beans.

A strict vegan diet limits the type of protein you are able to feed your child, but there are many excellent plant protein alternatives. Beans, lentils, hummus and soy products have more neutral flavors and are usually acceptable to children, especially when introduced at a younger age. Nuts and seeds are good protein sources and provide healthy fats. Whole grains provide a few grams of protein per serving as well. Check the labels and make sure your child is getting the amount needed for their age. It is best to spread the protein out to all three meals, rather than having one high protein meal, such as dinner.

Several plant proteins are common allergens in children: soy, tree nuts and peanuts. Allergies to soy and wheat are commonly outgrown by age 10, while fewer than 10 percent of children outgrow peanuts and tree nut allergies. Thankfully, seeds are not common allergens, so sunflower seeds are great alternatives to nuts. Sunflower seed butter and soy nut butter (if not allergic to soy) make great alternatives to peanut butter and are available in most supermarkets.

Be aware of overly processed vegan proteins. While tofu and tempeh are great protein sources, some processed soy-based meat substitutes are high in sodium and are produced with fillers, artificial flavors, colorings, gums, sugars and preservatives. Just like most other foods, the closer you stay to its original form, the better.

Other Necessary Nutrients

If you don’t consume dairy, make sure your child has a good source of calcium in their diet, especially as they approach their teen years. Vegans need just as much calcium as non-vegans. You may choose to supplement calcium, but you should also provide diet sources of calcium. The calcium in fortified soy milk and calcium-set tofu set appears to have a similar absorption rate as cow’s milk in vegans. There are also many plant foods that provide some calcium including broccoli, almonds, black beans, black strap molasses and some leafy green vegetables like kale and collards. Calcium fortified foods—juices, cereals, and other plant milks—can be good alternatives.

A variety of whole grains, colorful vegetables and fruits will provide most other vitamins and minerals, except vitamin B-12, which is found only in animal products. If your child is on a strict vegan diet, make sure you give him or her a B-12 supplement as directed.

A vegan diet is typically much lower in fat than a diet that includes animal proteins. Fat provides energy and essential nutrients for growth. Do not restrict fat but emphasize healthy oils—olive, canola, flax, nuts, and avocados. Omega-3 fats commonly in seafood are also found in marine algae (seaweed) and to a lesser extent, flaxseed and chia. There are now foods available that are fortified with these healthy fats, such as soy milk with DHA.

As with any child

  • Provide a variety of different and colorful vegetables and fruits.
  • Limit overly processed foods that lack the rich nutrients found in fresh foods.
  • Offer 100 percent whole grains – whole wheat, brown rice, whole grain pastas, quinoa and other fun grains.
  • Don’t fall prey to the thought that all vegan food is healthy! You will find that it’s not too hard to find junk food that fits in the vegan category: French fries, Fritos and Pepsi are all vegan! Limit sugar sweetened beverages, processed snack foods. Focus on fresh, whole food as much as possible.

Are you ready to try raising a child on a plant-based diet? Read So You Want to Raise a Vegan Child.

2 Comments

  1. This is excellent information. Thanks for sharing.
    Your last point is crucial! I know vegans whose diets are delicious and nutritious. I’ve also known vegans who eat way too much junk food. Vegan diets are not automatically healthy diets.

  2. Omnivore does not mean healthy either. At least vegans are giving thought to what goes in their mouths. It is a start.

    And maybe we should pay way more attention to the non-vegan parents who starve their children. It is a way higher number and far more tragic thing. Absolutely heartbreaking!

    Can we also stop saying that plant foods are limited in some amino acids? They are rich in some, but not lacking in any (see McDougall’s work on this). Nor is food combining all that necessary (it was a myth from a sociologist in the 70s which she recanted but this is now taught in medical and nutritional schools which makes one wonder what other unfounded dogmata are being taught…). If you meet your caloric needs with things such as potatoes, rice, etc., then the amino acid needs will also be met. It is other nutrients for which we need variety.

    Funnily enough, cows naturally get all their calcium from greens… which they are not eating so much of anymore with CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) so what really is the quality of their milk? If we are what we eat, then we are also what they eat.

    As far as fortified foods… I would rather choose my own high-quality supplements and also have higher quality foods, such as freshly made juice to wash that vitamin down.

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