According to the Vegan Society, in the past four years the vegan population in the UK has grown from 150,000 to 600,000. A recent study (Poore & Nemecek, 2019), reports more than 80 per cent of the world’s farmland is used for livestock, while only producing 18 per cent of food calories and 37 per cent of protein, while plant based diets are becoming increasingly accessible, and may present alternatives to food scarcity and provision, and potentially improve an individual’s nutritional status. How to help children eat well as vegans?
A vegan diet contains only plants, and foods made from plants, and excludes foods that come from animals, including dairy products and eggs. UK government guidelines promote vegan diets as suitable for all stages in our life-cycle except for children under two years, while the UK based vegan society provides healthy vegan guidelines for all ages.
How do I make sure my child has a healthy, balanced vegan diet?
A healthy vegan diet follows the same guidelines as the Eatwell Guide, and includes non-animal sources of protein, calcium, iron, B12 and vitamin D. This translates as at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and includes starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, rice or pasta with each meal. Dairy such as cheese, milk and yoghurts can be replaced with 2-3 portions a day of alternatives like soya milk and non-dairy yoghurts.
Beans, pulses, tofu, and tempeh are an excellent source of protein and can successfully replace meat, chicken and fish. Guidelines for protein intake depend on age, sex and weight, and the population Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for children age four to six years is 19.7 grams, while the RNI for children of seven to ten years is 28.3 grams a day. As with general population guidelines, vegans are encouraged to limit their intake of food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar or salt.
Do I need to pay extra attention to specific nutrients, vitamins and minerals?
It is important to understand what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet in order to ensure adequate intake of calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, and Omega 3 fatty acids. As with all children, vegan children need a wide variety of foods to provide energy and vitamins needed for growth.
Calcium is needed for strong and healthy bones and teeth, and vitamin D helps optimise uptake of calcium in the body. Good sources of calcium for vegans include:
fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat drinks, calcium-set tofu, sesame seeds and almonds, pulses, brown and white bread (in the UK, calcium is added to white and brown flour by law) dried fruit, such as raisins, prunes, figs and dried apricots. Eleven-eighteen year old RNI for calcium is 1000mg for boys and 800mg for girls.
It is difficult to obtain adequate vitamin D from diet alone, and supplementation may be the best option. Check the label to ensure there is no animal origin. Good sources of vitamin D include; brief sunlight exposure, fortified spreads, breakfast cereals and unsweetened soya drinks.
Iron is essential for red blood cell production and oxygen transport. While non-haem iron, (which comes from a plant-based diet) is less effectively absorbed by the body, eating vitamin C containing foods like green leafy veg and some fruits close to the same meal will help with absorption.
Iron sources for vegans include: lentils, beans and pulses, wholemeal bread and flour, breakfast cereals fortified with iron, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts & dried fruits.
B12 is important for red blood cell health and nervous system function, and is only found naturally in animal based foods, so supplementation is often required. Guidelines for B12 daily intake range from 0.8 ug (micrograms) a day for four to six year olds, to 1.5 ug a day for 15-18 year olds. A 200ml glass of fortified unsweetened soya milk provides around 0.76 ug of B12. Food based sources can include; fortified breakfast cereals, yeast extract and fortified unsweetened soya drinks.
Evidence shows that omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish can prove beneficial for heart health. Flaxseeds, linseeds, walnuts, rapeseed, soya oil and soya based foods are among good vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
For more detailed information on children and vegan eating, please refer to the following links.
Lorraine McLelland is a freelance nutritionist and UK registered dietitian. She consults at Stanley Wellness Centre and Lauren Bramley and Partners.