Have a child who declares that she no longer wants to eat animals? Chances are, you have a budding vegan in your home.
You know that kids need lots of different healthy foods to keep them growing and feeling good. So what happens if your child cuts out entire food groups? Can she get the nutrition she needs?
“It’s more and more common for parents to ask questions about health and safety aspects of a vegan diet for their children,” says Stephen Lauer, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Kansas Health System. “My answer is that a vegan diet can be healthy for children, but there are several extra factors to consider.”
You’ll need the facts to make sure your child gets enough fuel for her body and brain.
What It Means to Be Vegan
It’s easy to get “vegan” and “vegetarian” confused. Both diets avoid meat. But vegans also give up foods that contain any animal products, including dairy foods and eggs.
The number of things on that list may surprise you.
For instance, many baked goods will be off-limits since most are made with eggs and butter. Pizza can’t have cheese, and refried beans need to be cooked without lard. Strict vegans don’t even put honey on their toast or oatmeal.
Is a Vegan Diet Healthy for Kids?
It’s great for kids to think about the food choices they make every day. But you need to make sure she’s choosing foods that will give her enough energy to play, learn, and think.
There are plenty of pros to a plant-based diet. For example, giving up meat helps cut down on unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol.
Still, “there are some micro-nutrients that can be difficult to obtain ... from a vegan diet,” Lauer says.
You’ll need to plan carefully to make sure that your child gets enough:
Calories. Children’s calorie needs are different from adults' -- especially for kids under the age of 3, Lauer says. “They use more energy per pound of body weight than do adults and need to take in more energy per day to maintain healthy growth and activity,” he explains. Make sure your child eats foods high in “good” fats, such nuts, nut butters, and avocados.
Protein. It is possible to get this important nutrient without meat or dairy. Nut products, seeds, beans, and 100% whole grains all have protein that fuels kids through the day. A whole wheat peanut butter sandwich is a kid-friendly choice.
Vitamin B-12. It’s crucial for a healthy nervous system and blood cells. Animal foods are the main sources, so it’s easy for vegans not to get enough. Still, soy drinks, cereals, and veggie “meats” are all good sources.
Iron. Fortified cereals provide much-needed iron, as do beans and leafy green veggies. Your child will be able to absorb even more iron if she eats it with a food high in vitamin C. (Think salsa on a bean burrito.)
Calcium. It’s not just growing bones that crave calcium. It’s also key for nerves and muscles and helps blood clot. Vegan kids can get calcium from eating a variety of foods, from collard greens and tofu and drinking fortified foods such as calcium-enriched orange juice.
What Else Should I Know?
Prepare your child to expect a few challenges, says Danelle Fisher, MD, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. “Is she prepared for a turkey-less Thanksgiving? If she’s invited to a pizza party, what will she do?”
Help her find answers by doing research on your own and learning more about the vegan diet she’s so interested in. “Go shopping together. Cook together. Try new recipes,” Fisher suggests. “This can be a great opportunity for you to learn about new foods, too.”
What’s the Verdict?
“A carefully planned vegan diet can be a healthy diet with long-term benefits,” Lauer says. That said, it’s a good idea to ask your family doctor or a dietitian to weigh in. They may suggest that your child take a multivitamin or supplement to stay healthy and will also have ideas about healthy meals and snacks.