Veganuary is an international initiative to encourage people to try life without animal products for the month of Jan. According to research commissioned by the charity Veganuary there has been a 469% increase in people interested in veganism in the last 5 years. Whether you’re looking to adopt a vegan lifestyle, or just be a little more plant-based it’s important to consider the nutrition behind the scenes.
Research shows a vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate, but it is important to plan it carefully when it comes to children, and if in doubt seek advice from a Registered Dietitian, to ensure the diet includes all the essential nutrients needed for growth and development. We’ve produced a handy chart below to get you started and let’s look at what we need to be thinking about.
When we think about growth, especially in children, protein probably springs to mind. Plant- based foods contain less protein than animal protein sources; a 5-tablespoon portion of lentils contains 10g compared to 25g in a small chicken breast, for example. However, requirements are relative to body weight – an average 7-year-old needs 28g protein per day so children following a plant-based diet can easily meet their needs as long as they have a variety to give them all the essential amino acids which are found in different foods. See below for good sources of protein.
Our children can get all the iron they need from a plant- based diet, (see below), but we need to be aware that absorption of plant-based iron, known as non-haem, is generally poor. Consuming foods rich in vitamin C will boost the iron absorption by 2-3 times so it’s a good idea to include these at meals, for example citrus fruits, kiwi, peppers and broccoli.
There are plenty of dairy free milk alternatives to choose from, but they should be fortified with calcium, B vitamins, especially B12 and ideally iodine. Those based on nuts will have a lower protein content with soya and oat varieties providing a slightly better nutritional balance. There are also plenty of green leafy vegetables that are a good source of calcium, but some also contain oxalates, which will inhibit how calcium is used by the body. Kale is a great choice, 100g of it contains 252mg, whereas 100g broccoli only contains 47mg. Obviously they may not eat anywhere near 100g but it’s good to choose foods where every mouthful gives them that little bit more! More great choices listed below.
This has received a lot of attention recently – 50% of the iodine in the diet of 4- 10-year olds comes from milk and milk products. 10% comes from fish and white fish in particular is a really rich source. Without these foods, the diet has the potential to be very low in iodine. Plant- based dairy alternatives are not always fortified with iodine so it’s really important to check the label; we are seeing a decline in iodine intakes in the UK, especially in teenagers. It’s particularly important for children and pregnant women as it regulates the production of thyroid hormones and in pregnancy is needed for foetal brain and neurological development.
Some plant sources such as kelp are marketed as being high in iodine and may appear in supplements. However, iodine contents will vary considerably, and high doses can be dangerous. They are not a viable source for children. Seek individualised advice from a registered dietitian.
This vitamin can only be found naturally in animal products, but plant foods can be fortified with it, for example breakfast cereals and yeast extract. Supplementation may be necessary so again seek individualised advice from a registered dietitian.
Nearly half of our brain cell walls are made up of long chain fatty acids, which are found in oily fish. Although plant foods such as nuts and seeds, do contain omega-3 fatty acids, these are the short chain type which don’t convert very efficiently in the body into the long chain ones our brains require. It’s a good idea to supplement with omega-3 if you can, which can be obtained from a vegan- friendly algae- based supplement.
We hope this daily guide will help you to plan a healthy vegan diet for your family – but do seek advice if you have concerns.
At least 5 portions of fruit and veg
Choose plenty of different colours if you can and those rich in Vitamin C rich will help iron absorption.
Starchy foods at each meal
These will provide the energy for growth – they’ll also provide protein, for example, pasta, rice, barley or quinoa. Potatoes are also starchy but don’t provide any protein.
Including fibre versions is important but too much fibre can curb appetite so be mindful of this.
Protein at each meal
A combination of pulses and grains will provide all the essential amino acids the body needs – this doesn’t need to be achieved per meal but across a day is ideal. Protein will also come from nuts, seeds, soya products and meat substitutes.
Sources of iron
Use vitamin C to help with absorption from these plant-based sources:
Bread, especially wholemeal
Pulses, for example beans, lentils, chickpeas (even baked beans)
Green leafy vegetables e.g. broccoli, cabbage and spinach
Fortified breakfast cereals
Dried apricots and cashew nuts
Sources of calcium
Include a variety of these sources daily:
Fortified dairy alternatives e.g. oat, soya and nut milks and yogurts.
Calcium fortified cereals
Nuts e.g. peanuts, almonds, walnuts (avoid whole nuts until over 5)
Muesli (swiss style, with nuts)
Green vegetables (e.g. broccoli, leeks, cabbage, spinach, green beans, watercress, curly kale, okra, Chinese cabbage)
Baked beans in tomato sauce
Red Kidney beans
Energy Dense foods
A vegan diet can sometimes be lower in calories so making sure there are enough healthy fats in the diet is important. Avocado, oils, nuts (ground unless over 5) and seeds (and their butters) will all help as well as top up on essential nutrients too.
Seek specialist advice – kelp supplements NOT recommended. Potassium iodide or iodate suitable.
Look for long chain fatty acid supplements – EPA and DHA
Fortified foods e.g. dairy alternatives or yeast extract or a supplement
All children between October and April need a supplement and if under 5, they need it all year round. It’s vital for bone health and we don’t make enough from the sun in winter months. Some foods will also be fortified with it so look out for those to help top up.
The diet should provide enough but if your child has a small appetite or is a fussy eater supplements may be needed.
The Vegan Society (www.vegansociety.com)
Mangels Ar, Messina V. Considerations in planning vegan diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2001; 101: 670-677