Can Vegan Kids be Healthy Kids?
I often get asked my views on feeding kids a vegan diet. Even though I wholly believe that most of us should be eating many more veggies and plant-based foods, I feel that restricting a diet in growing kids and cutting out whole food groups doesn’t usually add up and here’s my reasoning…
If, like me you do your research, you will find that unless you make optimal nutrition a top priority for your family, both vegan and vegetarian diets can potentially compromise a child’s nutrition, which in turn could affect their health and development.
Raising kids on an entirely vegan diet can be successfully done and if this is a cause you are passionate about, then I totally respect this. However, bringing up kids on a wholly vegan diet is a huge commitment and responsibility; and if you choose this route for your family, my advice is to regularly consult with a nutritional therapist and run some functional medicine nutrition tests from time to time to give you the peace of mind you are doing a great job!
Preparation is key
It is no mean task and remember you will probably need to:
- prepare every single meal and snack from scratch as many vegan convenience foods are not that nutritious;
- have kids who are always ok to eat different food from their friends – even at celebrations;
- always plan ahead where to eat when you are going out or going on holiday (you may be used to this already);
- have a school that is able to cater for your kids’ diet; and
- pray you don’t have any food allergies or food fussiness to deal with.
Eating more plants will always be a positive step for your health and our planet and that’s why the recipes in my book, The Good Stuff, contain lots of veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds and pulses. Even if a recipe is 100% plant-based, I don’t label it as vegan. It’s there because it’s delicious and healthy… suitable for non-vegans too!
If you are a vegan family or trying to cut back on eating animal products you probably have lots of questions about getting your kids’ nutrition right, so here are some of my top tips:
Oat ‘milk’ generally contains 60mg calcium per 100ml whereas cow or goat milk has 120mg unless it has been specifically fortified with additional calcium. Shop bought almond or coconut ‘milks’ unless fortified, contain almost none! Since little kids need 550-700mg of calcium a day to keep their bones strong, this can amount to needing to drink over 1 litre of oat milk which more than most littlies could drink in one day – so you need to look for other naturally calcium-rich foods to maintain enough calcium.
Oats and almond butter are more dense calcium sources, and these are better options than relying on the shop bought plant-based ‘milks’. The best vegan calcium I have found is marine-sourced Lifestream made from an organic sea vegetable called Lithothamnium calcareum. It also contains the other naturally occurring minerals such as iodine, zinc and magnesium which kids often miss out on when they swap to plant-based ‘milks’ and are essential for growth and neuro-development. This powder is tasteless and can be added to smoothies and baked products such as waffle, pancake and muffin mixes.
Research shows that dietary omega 3 plays a key role in preventing a wide range of modern diseases from cardiovascular disease to diabetes to cancer as well as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and depression. It is also important for visual and neurological development as well as maternal and child mental health. In double-blind, randomized, controlled trials, fish-based DHA and EPA combinations have been shown to benefit attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and aggression.
It seems that oily fish is the best source of DHA which is the form of omega 3 important for brain development in the early years. Whilst the plant-based ALA form of omega 3 found in walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds is much harder to convert into this important DHA brain food. Even in the healthy and the well-nourished only 0.1%-10% of plant-based ALA can be converted into the useable DHA form, so as you can imagine you need spoonfuls of flax seeds, chia seeds or walnuts instead of one small piece of salmon to do the job. If you struggle to get your kids to eat plenty of these nuts and seeds then Cytoplan Vegan Omega 3 or Udo’s Ultimate Oil Blend are both good for supplementing a vegan diet.
Vegan diets provide virtually no vitamin B12 which is an important nutrient for all-round good health. Vitamin B12 is critical for red blood cell production, for optimal brain and neurological function as well as helping digestion and improving iron uptake. Marmite & nutritional yeast do contain a little but most vegans mainly rely on B12 sprays and drops to supplement their diet.
Your kids are going to have to love wholemeal bread, kidney & black beans, chickpeas and apricots as well as greens or rely on ultra-processed fortified cereals to get enough iron. Iron is critical for growth and brain development as well as energy production. When a little one is low in iron they can get tummy aches, have a poor appetite and poor immunity. Also remember to feed children plenty of vitamin C from oranges, lemons, red peppers and kiwi fruit helps to help absorb the iron in their food. Spatone Liquid Iron is our choice for kids who need a boost and are washed out and pale.
As you can see restrictive diets, even with the greatest intentions, can make life extremely complicated and most people would struggle to do this well. This is why we stock vegan-friendly food supplements at NatureDoc.Shop and offer family nutrition consultations.
I feel we could all benefit from eating more plants for our health and the future of our planet, but we also need to be mindful that our health is paramount – this means the families we work with usually end up deciding to boost up their kids’ plant intake – which slowly crowds out any excess animal products that a Western diet leans towards – rather than excluding any key food groups or relying on ultra-processed fortified foods and a shelf full of food supplements.