FEEDING VEGAN KIDS by Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.

Many members of The Vegetarian Resource Group are glowing testimony to the fact that vegan children can be healthy, grow normally, be extremely active and (we think) smarter than average. Of course it takes time and thought to feed vegan children. Shouldn't feeding of any child require time and thought? After all, the years from birth to adolescence are the years when eating habits are set, when growth rate is high, and to a large extent, when the size of stores of essential nutrients such as calcium and iron are determined.



The earliest food for a vegan baby should be either breast milk or soy formula. A wonderful trend in this country is that breast feeding is on the rise. Many benefits to the infant are conveyed by breast feeding including some enhancement of the immune system, protection against infection, and reduced risk of allergies. In addition, breast milk was designed for baby humans and quite probably contains substances needed by growing infants which are not even known to be essential and are not included in infant formulas. If you choose to breast feed, be sure to see that your diet is adequate to ensure that your milk is adequate for your child. Be especially careful that you are getting enough vitamin B12 and that your infant receives at least 2 hours a week of sunshine exposure to head and hands (1). Vitamin D supplements of 400 IU per day are recommended for breast fed infants age three months and older receiving limited sunshine exposure (2). Because vitamin D deficiency leads to rickets (soft, improperly mineralized bones) and because vitamin D is found only in very low amounts in human milk, if there is any question about whether or not your infant gets enough sun (cloudy climate, winter, dark-skinned infant), vitamin D supplements are a wise idea. No other supplements are usually needed for the first 6 months. Iron supplementation is often started for breast fed infants at 6 months.

Many books on infant care have sections on techniques and timing of breast feeding, and we suggest that you refer to one of these for more information. Be forewarned that they may discourage vegetarianism. They are wrong. With a little attention to detail, vegetarianism and breast feeding are a good combination. In fact, at least one report shows that milk of vegetarian women is lower in pesticides than the milk of women eating typical American diets (3).

If for any reason you choose not to breast feed or if you are using formula to supplement breast feeding, there are several soy-based formulas available. Brand names include Isomil, Prosobee, Nursoy, and Soyalac. These formulas can be used exclusively for the first 6 months. Iron supplements may be indicated at 4 months if the formula is not supplemented with iron.

Soy milk should NOT be substituted for soy formula in infants. Soy milk does not contain the proper ratio of protein, fat, and carbohydrate nor does it have enough of many vitamins and minerals to be used as the only food or almost only food an infant receives.

Supplemental food (food besides breast milk and formula) can be started at different times in different children depending on the child's rate of growth and stage of development. Some signs of the time to start introducing solid foods are: when the baby has doubled in weight since birth or weighs about 13 pounds AND when a breastfed baby demands to be fed more than 8-10 times in 24 hours or the formula fed baby consistently drinks more than a quart of formula per day AND when the baby often seems hungry (4). Usually these signs occur when the child is developmentally ready to begin solid foods.

Introduce one new food at a time to reduce the risk of allergy. Many people use iron-fortified infant rice cereal as the first food. This is a good choice as it is a good source of iron and rice cereal is least likely to cause an allergic response. Cereal can be mixed with expressed breast milk or soy formula so the consistency is fairly thin. Formula or breast milk feedings should continue as usual. Start with one cereal feeding daily and work up to 2 meals daily or 1/3 to 1/2 cup. Oats, barley, corn, and other grains can be ground in a blender and then cooked until very soft and smooth. These cereals can be introduced one at a time. However, they do not contain much iron, so iron supplements should be continued.

Once the baby is familiar with cereals (6-8 months), fruit, fruit juice, and vegetables can be introduced. Mashed banana is one food that many infants especially enjoy. Other fruits include mashed avocado, applesauce, and pureed canned peaches or pears. Citrus fruits and juices should be introduced after the fifth month. Mild vegetables (such as potatoes, carrots, peas, sweet potatoes, and green beans) should be cooked well and mashed. There is no need to add spices, sugar, or salt to cereals, fruits, and vegetables. Crackers, pieces of bread, and dry cereal can be introduced between 6 and 8 months.

By 7-10 months table foods can be introduced. Tofu is a good choice to provide protein, iron, and calcium (choose tofu processed with calcium sulfate). By this time your child can progress from mashed or pureed food to pieces of soft food. Continued use of iron-fortified infant cereals is recommended until at least 18 months.

By 10-12 months, your child should be eating at least the amounts of foods shown in Table 1.

Certainly it makes sense for vegans to continue breast feeding for a year or longer, if possible, because breast milk is a rich source of nutrients. However, many infants are not that interested in breast feeding after 10-12 months and will begin drinking from a cup. What should go into that cup? Ideally a fortified soy formula should be used until around age 6. Laurel's Kitchen (5) gives a recipe for fortified soy milk that can be prepared at home. Commercial soy milks are another option. However, in this country, they are seldom fortified with vitamins and minerals so if soymilk is used, more care must be taken to insure that the child's diet is adequate.

Several studies have been reported showing that the growth of vegan children is slower than that of non-vegans (see 6-8). Studies such as these are often cited as evidence that vegan diets are inherently unhealthy. However, when the studies are examined more closely, we find that they are often based on vegans who have very low calorie or very limited diets (only fruit and nuts for example).



An additional question that must be asked is, "What is a normal growth rate?" Growth rate is assessed by comparing changes in a child's height, weight, and head circumference to rates of growth that have been established by measuring large numbers of apparently healthy US children. There is no one ideal rate of growth. Instead, height, weight, and head circumference are reported in percentiles. If your child's height is at the 50th percentile, this means that 50% of children of that age are taller and 50% are shorter. Similarly, a weight at the 25th percentile means 25% of children weigh less and 75% weigh more.


While some studies show that vegan children are at a lower percentile of weight and height than are other children of a similar age, a recent study shows that vegan children can have growth rates which do not differ from those of omnivorous children of the same age (9). At this time we cannot say that a child growing at the 25th percentile is any more or less healthy than a child growing at the 75th percentile. What seems to be more important is that the child stays at about the same percentile. For example, a child who is at the 50th percentile for height at age 2 and only at the 25th percentile at age 3 has had a faltering in growth rate. The cause of this faltering should be determined.


The best way to assure that your children achieve their ideal rate of growth is to make sure that they have adequate calories. Some vegan children have difficulty getting enough calories because of the sheer bulk of their diets. Children have small stomachs and can become full before they have eaten enough food to sustain growth. The judicious use of fats in forms like avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and seed butters will provide a concentrated source of calories needed by many vegan children. Dried fruits are also a concentrated calorie source and are an attractive food for many children. Teeth should be brushed after eating dried fruits to prevent tooth decay.


Diets of young children should not be overly high in fiber since this may limit the amount of food they can eat. The fiber content of a vegan child's diet can be reduced by giving the child some refined grain products, fruit juices, and peeled vegetables.

Sources of protein for vegan children include legumes, grains, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, nuts, peanut butter, tahini, soy hot dogs, soy yogurt, and soy cheese. Some of these foods should be used daily. Children should get enough calories so that protein can be used for growth in addition to meeting energy needs.

Table 2 shows one diet plan that has been used successfully by vegan children (adapted from 10, 11).

Although today more and more children are vegan from birth, many older children also become vegan. There are many ways to make a transition from a non-vegan to a vegan diet. Some families gradually eliminate dairy products and eggs, while others make a more abrupt transition. Regardless of which approach you choose, be sure to explain to your child what is going on and why, at your child's level. Offer foods that look familiar, at first. Peanut butter sandwiches seem to be universally popular and many children like pasta or tacos. Gradually introduce new foods. Watch your child's weight closely. If weight loss occurs or the child doesn't seem to be growing as rapidly, add more concentrated calories and reduce the fiber in your child's diet.

Teenage vegans have nutritional needs that are the same as any other teenager. The years between 13 and 19 are times of especially rapid growth and change. Nutritional needs are high during these years. The teenage vegan should follow the same recommendations that are made for all vegans, namely to eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12 are nutrients teenage vegans should be aware of.

The recommendation for protein is 0.5 grams per pound for 11-14 year olds and 0.4 grams per pound for 15-18 year olds (12). Those exercising strenuously (marathon runners, for example) may need slightly more protein. A 16 year old who weighs 120 pounds, needs about 44 grams of protein daily. In terms of food, 1 cup of cooked dried beans has 14 grams of protein, a cup of soy milk or soy yogurt has 8-10 grams, 4 ounces of tofu has 9 grams, a tablespoon of peanut butter or peanuts has 4 grams, and 1 slice of bread or 1 cup of grain has about 3 grams.

Fruits, fats, and alcohol do not provide much protein, and so a diet based only on these foods would have a good chance of being too low in protein. Vegans eating varied diets containing vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories) to support growth. There is no need to take protein supplements. There is no health benefit to eating a very high protein diet and it will not help in muscle building.

During adolescence, calcium is used to build bones. The density of bones is determined in adolescence and young adulthood, and so it is important to include three or more good sources of calcium in a teenager's diet everyday. Cow's milk and dairy products do contain calcium. However, there are other good sources of calcium such as tofu processed with calcium sulfate, green leafy vegetables including collard greens, mustard greens, and kale, as well as tahini (sesame butter).

By eating a varied diet, a vegan can meet his or her iron needs, while avoiding the excess fat and cholesterol found in red meats such as beef or pork. To increase the amount of iron absorbed from a meal, eat a food containing vitamin C as part of the meal. Citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, and broccoli are all good sources of vitamin C. Foods that are high in iron include broccoli, raisins, watermelon, spinach, black-eyed peas, blackstrap molasses, chickpeas, and pinto beans.

It is important to consume adequate vitamin B12 during adolescence. Vitamin B12 is not found in plants. Some cereals such as Nutri-Grain have vitamin B12. Red Star T-6635+ nutritional yeast supplies B12.

Many teenagers are concerned with losing or gaining weight. To lose weight, look at the diet. If it has lots of sweet or fatty foods, replace them with fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. If a diet already seems healthy, increased exercise -- walking, running or swimming daily -- can help control weight. To gain weight, more calories are needed. Perhaps eating more often or eating foods somewhat higher in fat and lower in bulk will help. Try to eat three or more times a day whether you are trying to gain weight or lose weight. It is hard to get all of the nutritious foods you need if you only eat one meal a day. If you feel that you cannot control your eating behavior or if you are losing a great deal of weight, you should discuss this with your health care provider.

Often there is just not enough time to eat. Here are some foods that kids can eat on the run. Some of these foods can be found in fast-food restaurants -- check the menu. Ideas for snacks that you can carry from home include:

Apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, peaches, plums, dried fruits, bagels and peanut butter, carrot or celery sticks, popcorn, pretzels, soy cheese pizza, bean tacos or burritos, salad, soy yogurt, soy milk, rice cakes, sandwiches, frozen juice bars.

Table 1: Feeding Schedule For Vegan Babies Ages 6-12 Months

4-7 mos*   6-8 mos   7-10 mos   10-12 mos

MILK Breast milk Breast milk Breast milk Breast milk

or soy or soy or soy or soy

formula. formula. formula formula

(16-24 ounces).

CEREAL & BREAD Begin iron- Cont. baby Baby cereal. Baby cereal

fortified cereal. Other bread until 18 mos

baby cereal Begin other and cereals Total of 4

mixed w/ breads & svgs. (1 svg

milk. cereals. =1/4 slice

bread or 2-4

TBSP cereal.

FRUITS & VEGETABLES none Begin juice 3 oz juice Table food

from cup. 3 Pieces of diet.

oz vit C soft/cooked Allow

source. fruits & 4 svgs/day

Begin mashed vegetables. (1 svg=1-6

vegetables & TB fruit &

fruits. vegetable.

3 oz juice)

LEGUMES & NUTS none none Gradually 2 svgs

introduce daily, each

tofu. Begin about 1/2

casseroles, oz.

peanut butter other nut butters, legumes, soy cheese & soy yogurt.

Adapted from (10) and (13).

*Overlap of ages occurs because of varying rate of development.

*******************************************************

Table 2: Diet Plan For Vegan Children

FOOD 1-4 yrs 4-6 yrs 7-12 yrs

BREAD 3 slices 4 slices 4-5 slices

CEREALS & GRAINS 1/2 cup 1 cup 1 cup

NUTS, NUT BUTTER, LEGUMES, TOFU 3 TB-1 cup 3 TB-1 cup 3 TB-1-1/2 cups

FATS 3 tsp 4 tsp 5 tsp

FRUITS CITRUS, juice or chopped

1/2-1 cup 1/2-1 cup 1/2-1 cup

OTHER, chopped 1/4-3/4 cup 1/2-1 cup 1-1-1/2 cups

VEGETABLES LEAFY GREEN OR YELLOW, chopped

2-3 TB 1/4-1/3 cup 1/2-1 cup

OTHER, chopped 1/4-1/3 cup 1/4-1/3 cup 1-1-1/2 cups

SOYMILK 3 cups 3 cups 3-4 cups

NUTRITIONAL YEAST 1 TB 1 TB 1 TB

BLACKSTRAP MOLASSES 1 TB 1 TB 1 TB

Adapted from (10) and (11).

The calorie content of the diet can be increased by greater amounts of nut butters, dried fruits and cereals.

The nutritional yeast should be fortified with vitamin B12 (check the label) and a vitamin B12-fortified cereal should be used often or vitamin B12 supplements are recommended.

If the soy milk is not fortified with calcium, other sources of calcium such as leafy green vegetables and tofu pressed with calcium sulfate should be used.

This plan may be low in zinc unless wheat germ or fortified cereals are used.

Adequate exposure to sunlight, 20 to 30 minutes of summer sun on hands and face two to three times a week, is recommended to promote vitamin D synthesis (1).

 References

1. Specker BL, Valanis B, Hertzberg V et al: Sunshine exposure and serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D concentrations in exclusively breast-fed infants. J Pediatr 107: 372-376, 1985.

2. Specker BL, Greer F, Tsang RC: Vitamin D. In Tsang RC and Nichols BL (eds): Nutrition During Infancy. Philadelphia: Hanley & Belfus, Inc., 1988; 264-276.

3. Hergenrather J, Hlady G, Wallace B, Savage E: Pollutants in breast milk of vegetarians. New Engl J Med 304: 792, 1981.

4. Purvis GA, Bartholmey SJ: Infant feeding practices: Commercially prepared baby foods. In Tsang RC and Nichols BL (eds): Nutrition During Infancy. Philadelphia: Hanley & Belfus, Inc., 1988; 399-417.

5. Robertson L, Flinders C, Ruppenthal B: The New Laurel's Kitchen. A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1986.

6. Fulton JR, Hutton CW, Stitt KR: Preschool vegetarian children. J Am Diet Assoc 76: 360-365, 1980.

7. Sanders TAB and Purves R: An anthropometric and dietary assessment of the nutritional status of vegan pre-school children. J Hum Nutr 35: 349-357, 1981.

8. Shinwell ED and Gorodischer R: Totally vegetarian diets and infant nutrition. Pediatrics 70: 582-586,1982.

9. O'Connell JM, Dibley MJ, Sierra J et al: Growth of vegetarian children: The Farm study. Pediatrics 84: 475-481, 1989.

10. Truesdell DD and Acosta PB: Feeding the vegan infant and child. J Am Diet Assoc 85: 837-840, 1985.

11. Vyhmeister IB, Register UD, Sonnenberg LM: Safe vegetarian diets for children. Pediatr Clin N Amer 24: 203-210, 1977.

12. Food and Nutrition Board, National Research Council: Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989.

13. Satter E: Child of Mine. Feeding with Love and Good Sense. Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing Co., 1986.

This article originally appeared in the_Vegetarian_Journal_, published by:

The Vegetarian Resource Group P.O. Box 1463 Baltimore, MD 21203(410) 366-VEGE

WHAT IS THE VEGETARIAN RESOURCE GROUP?

Our health professionals, activists, and educators work with businesses and individuals to bring about healthy changes in your school, workplace, and community. Registered dietitians and physicians aid in the development of nutrition-related publications and answer member and media questions about vegetarian diets. The Vegetarian Resource Group is a non-profit organization. Financial support comes primarily from memberships, contributions, and book sales.

The contents of this article, as with all The Vegetarian Resource Group publications, is not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional.

For questions or comments on this article, please contact Bobbi Pasternak at
bobbi@clark.net. This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use intact or with credit given to The Vegetarian Resource Group.