How to Feed Vegan Kids
By Reed Mangels, Dietitian
Read the Vegetarian Resource Group’s full article by Reed Mangels.
Several studies have been reported showing that the growth of vegan children is slower than that of non-vegans. 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). In addition, many vegan infants are breastfed. Babies who are breastfed tend to gain weight more slowly before their first birthday than do bottle-fed babies. Up until a few years ago, vegetarians whose babies were breastfed were justly suspicious of growth charts. Before 2006, growth charts for infants were mainly based on the growth of babies fed infant formula. Growth charts based on formula-fed infants may make it seem that breastfed infants are not growing well. In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) released growth charts that were based on the growth of breastfed infants. These growth charts, which show what normal growth should look like, are called the WHO growth charts and should be used to assess growth of children less than 2 years of age. Older children are monitored with growth charts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
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 children. Once your child’s height and weight are measured, the measurements are compared to growth curves – graphs that show growth patterns of children by age. There is no single perfect growth rate. Instead, growth charts are set up using percentiles. If your child’s height is at the 50th percentile, that means that 50 percent of children of that age are taller and 50 percent are shorter. Similarly, a weight at the 25th percentile means 25 percent of children weigh less and 75 percent weigh more at the same age.
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.
A wide range of growth percentiles are considered “normal.” A child at the 10th percentile for weight or the 95th percentile for height is still considered to be within the healthy range. You don’t get extra points for higher or lower percentiles. However, if your baby or young child is below the 2nd or above the 98th percentile for weight or head circumference (or below the 2nd percentile for length), your health care provider will try to find out why this is and if intervention is needed. In addition, children don’t usually make large jumps – like from the 75th to the 25th percentile – so if this happens, the reason for this faltering is investigated. Older children (age 2 and older) are assessed using slightly different standards. Older children’s’ body mass index (BMI) is calculated using their weight and height. If BMI for age or weight for height is above the 95th percentile, the child is evaluated as being overweight. If BMI for age is between the 85th and 95th percentile, the child is “at risk of overweight.” If BMI for age is below the 5th percentile, the child is considered underweight and further evaluation may be needed. Of course, when any child is evaluated, factors such as the size of the parents and whether or not the child was born prematurely or if there are health issues are taken into consideration.
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.
Are very low fat diets appropriate for children? Some parents wish to reduce their children’s risk of developing heart disease later in life and markedly restrict the fat in their children’s diets (10 to 15 percent of calories from fat). In some cases, a very low fat diet can compromise a child’s growth because the child is not getting enough calories. There is no evidence that a very low fat diet is any healthier for a vegan child than a diet that has somewhat more fat (25 to 35 percent of calories from fat). Fat should not be limited for infants less than 2 years. It should be between 30 and 40 percent of calories for 1 to 3 year olds, and between 25 and 35 percent of calories for 2 to 3 year olds, and between 25 and 35 percent of calories for children and teens. If you are using a lower fat diet than this, check that the child’s growth is normal and that the child is eating enough food to meet nutrient needs.
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, soy milk, nuts, peanut butter, tahini, soy hot dogs, soy yogurt, and veggie burgers. 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. The calorie content of the diet can be increased by greater amounts of nut butters, dried fruits, soy products, and other high calorie foods.
A regular source of vitamin B12 like Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast, vitamin B12 fortified soy milk, vitamin B12 fortified breakfast cereal, vitamin B12 fortified meat analogues, or vitamin B12 supplements should be 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. If sunlight exposure is limited, dietary or supplemental vitamin D should be used.
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 (beware: some kids are allergic to peanut butter) 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.