Many people have for various reasons decided not to eat meat, meat products or by-products (eggs, dairy, honey) and, when they have children, weaning onto vegan and vegetarian diets can be challenging. As a nutritionist, it is imperative that I help educate and assist them in achieving good health for themselves and their children.
So, what’s the difference?
Vegans only eat vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds allowed. Strict vegans also avoid honey. Vegetarians include ethically sourced dairy products, honey. Pescatarians further include fish and shellfish into a vegetarian diet.
The main issues facing children following a vegan/vegetarian diet could be the following:
Iron: Natural iron stores start to deplete at around 6 months, which is one of the reasons why weaning is advised to begin by this age. Iron from meat products (heme iron) has a higher bioavailability than that of vegetable or non-meat (non-heme) sources; and heme iron has a higher quantity of iron per serving than that of vegetables. Pescatarians who eat tuna, oysters (good for iron!) and deep sea/game fish have less concern around iron stores but still need to keep this in mind.
Iron needs are high up till the age of around 5 years. Iron levels can also dip around the onset of puberty in girls.
Always eat iron rich foods with vitamin C (oranges) to maximise iron absorption. Avoid teas and also milk/dairy products, which chelate iron and can prevent absorption. If you are having beans, nuts or sprouts that contain phytates, these also block mineral absorption (such as iron).
Iron supplements can cause constipation, but Floradix is a good vegan iron supplement in liquid form that has little reported side effects. You can get in UAE from Holland & Barrett and many other health shops.
Vitamin B12: A necessary water-soluble vitamin needed by every cell in the body, that is found in meats and yeast extracts. Deficiency can cause anemia and brain damage. Often a vitamin in fortified products such as cereals and grains (breads). A good general multivitamin would counteract any deficiency.
Vitamin D: A fat-soluble vitamin that is mostly found in dairy products, egg yolks as well as one the body can make endogenously when the skin is exposed to UV sun light. Vitamin D is essential for strong bone health, and is a precursor for many hormones and compounds in the body essential for good health.
Liquid vitamin D drops are recommended from the age of 6 months – 5 years in the Middle East and high Northern Hemisphere countries due to lack of consistent skin-to-sun exposure.
Calcium: Calcium is often sourced from dairy products, but you can get good vegan calcium intake from the following: Dried figs, apricots & dates, kale & bok choy, tofu, almonds and canned white beans.
Make white bean mash/hummus, stew almonds and dried fruits, then puree to add to porridge/rice.
Print off an amino acid combining list for your fridge. Try to blend, mash or mix the 2 amino acid sources together to maximise the amino acid intake for your child, than offer the foods separately and they decide not to eat the complimentary source.
Adding high quality fats to the diet such as olive oil, avocado, flax, coconut cream and oil can help balance the energy needs and increase omega-3 (the good anti-inflammatory ones) intake.
After 1 year of age, and baby is tracking it’s weight well and eating a varied diet, formula (or if weaning from breastmilk) can be done and “milks” such as rice, oat, nut or soy-milks used instead. Vegetarians can switch to cow’s milk if they so choose.
Check the ingredients in milk replacements for unnecessary additives, emulsifiers, sugars and preservatives. These can make the ‘healthy’ milks unhealthy. If you are vegan, look for calcium enriched milks. If cow’s milk is chosen, always choose full fat to increase fat-soluble vitamin and energy consumption.
Ultimately, a vegan diet poses more possible health risks than a vegetarian diet. Supplementing a vegetarian diet with occasional fatty fish (wild salmon, tuna) or mollusks (which don’t have a developed central nervous system) such as oysters and mussels will further complement a vegetarian diet.
With careful dietary planning (including supplementation) and regular health check ups with your child’s pediatrician, there is no general reason why choosing a balanced vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian diet would lead to any adverse health effects. If your child has food allergies, is only eating one or two types of foods and, or, is showing any indicators of anemia, ill health or starts to show indications of slowing his or her weight curve, it would be advised that you seek specific individualized advice to determine the best dietary options for your child(ren).
This article is for general information purposes only and should not replace any medical advice.