A Plant-Based Diet for a Healthy Vegan Baby
So your baby is making the important move from exclusive breastfeeding or formula to solids—a momentous occasion indeed! But if you’re planning to include your baby in your vegan lifestyle, you may be wondering how to ensure your little one gets all the nutrients babies require, many of which are conventionally understood to come from animal-based foods. Over the last several decades, the vegan or plant-based diet has been gaining popularity worldwide with motivations ranging from ethical to ecological to religious. Regardless of the reasons, there are many foods that serve up nutrients that can compensate for those traditionally provided through an omnivorous diet. Vegan babies can be healthy babies!
Benefits for baby on a vegan diet
Usually when vegan diets are discussed, the conversation centers around which foods are restricted. In broad strokes, these include meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and honey. What often gets glossed over is the abundant variety of foods that are a part of a vegan diet, including grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and spices. These food groups offer vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients in abundance and careful planning and consumption of a wide variety of plant foods can ensure all baby’s nutrient needs are met.
Research shows the breast milk of vegan mothers provides adequate nutrition for breastfed infants and the growth rates of vegan children and adolescents are on par with their omnivorous counterparts. Infants and children following a plant-based diet are also at decreased risk for developing obesity and exhibit lower levels of inflammatory markers. To reap the health benefits a vegan diet has to offer, it is important to consume sufficient amounts of a wide variety of plant foods with an emphasis on whole or minimally processed foods.
Vegan baby diet essentials
Childhood, and especially infancy, is a time of rapid growth and development, with most babies tripling their birth weight in the first year and neurological development occurring more rapidly than in any other phase of life. To support this incredible growth, nutrient needs are particularly high in those first few years. Protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin D support overall body growth and the development of a strong musculoskeletal system while omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 are the building blocks of a healthy brain.
Cultural and social norms and effective industry marketing have convinced us that the nutrients crucial to developing babies can only be reliably obtained by regularly consuming animal products. Protein and iron are strongly associated with meats, and in the case of iron, red meat in particular; calcium and milk are almost synonymous in the cultural psyche; and it can be difficult to find any popular nutrition advice that doesn’t equate omega-3s with fatty fish like salmon. But most of these nutrients, as well as many others, are plentiful in plant foods, and thoughtful meal planning and supplementation can ensure adequate intake to support the healthy growth of your baby.
Protein is essential to the process of tissue building. Without sufficiently large amounts in periods of rapid growth like infancy, stunted growth is likely. It is a good idea for vegan breastfeeding mothers to increase their protein intake by 10% to support milk supply and protein content of breast milk. For infants, breast milk or formula are good sources of protein in addition to introduced solid foods.
The goal with protein consumption is to maintain a large supply of all the amino acids the body needs for tissue building. With the exception of soy, individual plant foods offer a slightly different and incomplete essential dietary amino acid profile so it’s ideal to consume different plant protein sources throughout the day to ensure all amino acid types are acquired. Although all plants contain some protein, the highest plant protein sources are beans, lentils, peas, (thinly spread) nut butters, and soy.
Calcium is the major mineral component of bone and is important in building bone density and preventing the childhood disease rickets, with its hallmark symptom of soft bones leading to bowed legs. Both breast milk and formula are excellent sources of calcium and much of the daily requirement can be met with these.
With the introduction of solids, calcium-rich foods should be offered 3-5 times per day. While dairy products often come to mind when thinking of calcium, there are many plant-based options! Most leafy greens, sesame seeds, almonds, dried figs, chia seeds, and cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and cabbage are all excellent sources of calcium. In addition to these whole foods, plant-based yogurts and milks are often fortified with additional calcium. (Try these dairy-free alternatives!)
The familiar role of vitamin D is in partnership with calcium to support healthy bone development. As more is learned about it, it has become apparent that vitamin D acts more similarly to a hormone than a vitamin within the body and participates in processes that affect mood, blood sugar regulation, and heart and immune health to name a few.
Vitamin D is also unique because there are not many good dietary sources. Most of the vitamin D consumed in the diet is found in fortified foods like dairy products and orange juice, and it’s also present in fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, and pastured egg yolks. Not options for vegans! Portobello, maitake, morel, button, shiitake, and raw chanterelle mushrooms contain a moderate amount but the vitamin D content diminishes when cooked or stored for long periods. Other vegan-friendly foods that are often fortified with vitamin D include almond and soy milk, and tofu.
The most effective way to ensure adequate vitamin D in the body is by exposing bare skin to sunlight, but of course, with caution. The skin converts ultraviolet rays from the sun into vitamin D which can be used by the body. How much vitamin D is produced largely depends on the time of day, where you live in the world, and the color of your skin. During times when sun exposure isn’t safe, realistic, or in conditions where exposure may be inadequate, supplementation with vitamin D is the best option. It is recommended that all infants and children, including both omnivores and those following a plant-based diet, supplement with 400IUs of vitamin D daily. Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, oil immersion forms of supplemental vitamin D are often better absorbed.
Iron is necessary to produce red blood cells and assists in the oxygenation of all the tissues in the body. Although infant formula is fortified with iron, breast milk is not a good source, so during the last several weeks of pregnancy, babies stockpile a reserve of iron to be drawn on for the first 6 months of life outside the womb. Around 6 months of age, breast-fed infants deplete their iron reserves and dietary sources of iron become important to prevent anemia, which is why this is a good time to introduce other sources of food.
Despite the strong cultural association between consumption of meat and iron intake, vegan diets tend to be higher in total iron intake than omnivorous diets! However, the iron in plant foods is in a form called non-heme iron which is less readily absorbed by the body than the heme form of iron found in animal products.
Offer foods with a high iron content 2-3 times per day including lentils, chickpeas (babies love hummus!), beans, tofu, broccoli, kale, and nut butters. Vitamin C increases the absorption of non-heme iron so pairing high iron foods with citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, or bell peppers can give an iron boost! Phytates are a group of compounds found in beans and grains that bind iron, making it unavailable to the body. Soaking beans and grains before consuming decreases the phytate content and frees up the iron. Cooking in cast iron cookware also increases iron intake (another reason to avoid Teflon!).
Omega-3 fatty acids
Fats should not be restricted in infancy as they provide a vital source of energy and important essential fatty acids for growth. Omega-3 fatty acids help drive anti-inflammatory pathways and support immune health. Specific omega-3s like DHA (docosahexanoic acid), are crucial for proper brain and eye development.
Breast milk—when moms are following a well-planned diet—and formula are both good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Once solid foods are introduced, vegan infants should consume 1-2 daily servings of omega-3 rich foods including flax seeds and flax oil, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds. These foods can be consumed whole or ground up and used as a superfood sprinkled on or blended into purees, cereals, sandwiches, or noodles!
Because DHA in particular is so important to the rapid development of the brain and eyes in infants, requirements for this particular omega-3 are especially high during this phase of life. A daily DHA supplement of at least 100mg is suggested for all children, including those following a vegan diet, from 6 months to 3 years of age. While many DHA supplements are derived from fish oil, algae-derived DHA supplements are a good vegan alternative.
Vitamin B12 supports a healthy brain and nervous system as well as formation of red blood cells and a deficiency is often marked by a lack of energy and brain fog. Naturally found in animal-based foods, vitamin B12 cannot be found in sufficient amounts in plant foods. Although seaweed and fermented foods may contain small amounts of vitamin B12, these are not considered adequate sources so supplementation is always required for those following a vegan diet.
Vitamin B12 is found in infant formula as well as breast milk if mom is supplementing sufficiently. As solid foods are introduced and breast milk becomes a smaller component of the diet, foods fortified with vitamin B12 (like nutritional yeast often is) should be offered at least 3 times daily and supplementation of vitamin B12 for babies on a plant-based diet should be considered.
Vegan diets can be healthy at any stage of life, including infancy and childhood, as long as the diet is varied, balanced, and thoroughly considered. Most deficiencies occurring on a vegan diet are a result of a limited or incomplete intake of plant-based foods or lack of appropriate supplementation. To minimize deficiency risks, no plant-based food groups should be excluded and special attention should be paid to the critical nutrients for infant development. Perhaps the spinach, broccoli, and chia seed industries would do well to invest in a little marketing! With a thoughtful approach, your vegan baby can thrive on a plant-based diet.