All Ages: Social, Sanguine, and Sane
Plant-based nutritionist Alex Davis looks at the prevailing advice from global health authorities when it comes to the safety and efficacy of feeding our youngest vegans.
The topic of supplements tends to produce a lot of debate, especially in relation to veganism. Being a mum, I prioritise optimal health and safety of my little one when it comes to diet and supplements. This is what I’ll focus on while discussing the topic. First of all, are plant-based diets safe for kids in general? Can they ensure our babies’ adequate growth and development? A lot of parents are concerned that vegan diets may be in some ways deficient, not providing all the necessary nutrients for their growing children. I’d like to argue that a thoughtfully planned vegan diet is not only appropriate, it can be completely safe and beneficial for children, as long as they’re receiving an adequate amount and a wide variety of high-quality, nutritious foods. The fact that such diets need to be carefully planned and that some supplementation may be required is true for any modern diet, plant-based or not. Overwhelming scientific evidence endorses a diet centred around plants as the foundation of health, independent of other genetic and lifestyle factors. Major health authorities, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and New Zealand Ministry of Health, agree that diets should be largely plant-centred, and support appropriately planned vegan diets for children of all ages.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics even states such a lifestyle is more environmentally sustainable because it uses fewer natural resources and is associated with less environmental damage. I appreciate them mentioning this fact! If there’s anything we can do to leave a better world for our children, why wouldn’t we do it? With animal agriculture being a major cause of environmental destruction, citizens of the future will need to adopt a predominantly plant-based diet. I believe raising our kids this way is one of the most responsible things we can do for their own good. The idea that a vegan diet is inadequate because it may require some form of supplementation is unfounded, because almost all modern diets include supplements or fortified foods. Routine fortification of our food supply with vitamins and minerals like iodine, folic acid, iron, vitamin D, and others isn’t new and goes back to the 1920s, way before veganism was even a thing! Nutrient deficiencies are still relatively common, and most people who suffer from them aren’t plant-based. However, there are micronutrients vegan families with little kids should pay special attention to. Those are vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, and long-chain omega 3s. In this column we’ll have a closer look at the first two.
Vitamin B12 is a critical nutrient for infants and toddlers that’s responsible for the development and production of new cell material, including red blood cells and brain cells. This vitamin is not made by animals or plants but by bacteria in the soil. Livestock animals can get B12 from bacteria in their stomachs, dirt in their feed, or from supplements provided to them.
Most vegans will know that B12 is the one nutrient you have to supplement. Even though there’s evidence of certain amounts present in mushrooms, seaweed, and unwashed produce, those aren’t reliable sources. Babies under 12 months will get all the B12 they need from breastmilk or formula. If you’re a vegan breastfeeding mother, you need to make sure you supplement with B12 so your baby gets the necessary amount from your milk.
As for toddlers, fortified foods like plant milks or nutritional yeast can be helpful, B12 from those foods is usually well absorbed. If your child is still drinking formula or having a fortified toddler drink, they’ll be getting some B12 from those. When their breast milk and/or formula consumption decreases, a supplement is the safest way to go.
This vitamin is different from all other micronutrients: our bodies can synthesise it from sunlight! Vitamin D performs hormone-like functions in the body; it promotes calcium absorption, bone formation and growth, cell maturation, maintains the body’s immune system, and may even protect from chronic disease. Up to 90% of our vitamin D comes from sunshine; natural food sources (fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms) are scarce and not reliable in terms of meeting one’s requirements — vegan or not. Vitamin D deficiency is common worldwide among all ages, the most vulnerable kids are the ones with darker skin tones, living in cold climates with little sunshine.
Breast milk is quite low in vitamin D, that’s why nearly all breastfed infants are prescribed supplemental drops from birth. Formula-fed babies don’t need a supplement as formula is already fortified with vitamin D.
Toddlers aged 1–3 aren’t usually deficient in vitamin D, as long as they’re spending a decent amount of time playing outdoors. However, during overcast winter months a supplement may be helpful, as well as including fortified foods like plant milks or cereal. In the next issue’s column we’ll look at iron, calcium, long-chain omega 3s, and the usefulness of multivitamins.
You can follow Alex Davis on Instagram at @plantbasedllama .
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.
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