FEEDING VEGAN KIDS by Reed Mangels, Ph.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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
or soy or soy or soy or soy
formula. formula. formula
CEREAL & BREAD Begin iron- Cont. baby
Baby cereal. Baby cereal
fortified cereal. Other bread until 18
baby cereal Begin other and cereals Total of 4
mixed w/ breads
& svgs. (1 svg
milk. cereals. =1/4 slice
FRUITS & VEGETABLES none Begin juice 3 oz
juice Table food
from cup. 3 Pieces of diet.
oz vit C soft/cooked
source. fruits & 4 svgs/day
Begin mashed vegetables. (1
vegetables & TB fruit &
3 oz juice)
LEGUMES & NUTS none none Gradually 2
introduce daily, each
tofu. Begin about
peanut butter other nut butters, legumes, soy
cheese & soy yogurt.
Adapted from (10) and (13).
ages occurs because of varying rate of
2: Diet Plan For Vegan Children
FOOD 1-4 yrs 4-6 yrs 7-12
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
FATS 3 tsp 4 tsp 5 tsp
FRUITS CITRUS, juice or
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
1 TB 1 TB 1 TB
BLACKSTRAP MOLASSES 1 TB 1 TB 1 TB
(10) and (11).
The calorie content of the diet can be increased by
greater amounts of nut butters, dried fruits and cereals.
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
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
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and serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D concentrations in exclusively breast-fed infants.
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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;
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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.
ED and Gorodischer R: Totally vegetarian diets and infant nutrition. Pediatrics
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vegetarian children: The Farm study. Pediatrics 84: 475-481, 1989.
Truesdell DD and Acosta PB: Feeding the vegan infant and child. J Am Diet Assoc
85: 837-840, 1985.
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Satter E: Child of Mine. Feeding with Love and Good Sense. Palo Alto, CA: Bull
article originally appeared in the_Vegetarian_Journal_, published by:
Vegetarian Resource Group P.O. Box 1463 Baltimore, MD 21203(410)
WHAT IS THE VEGETARIAN RESOURCE GROUP?
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
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The contents of
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