It’s easy to see why more and more people are choosing to live a vegan lifestyle: it is healthy, has a low environmental impact, and checks some big ethical boxes. But is raising kids in a vegan lifestyle safe for them? We asked Dietician Dr Kate Marsh, PhD.
PS: Let’s jump right into it: is it safe to raise your kids in a vegan lifestyle?
KM: It is safe to bring up a child vegan. There is research to show that it just does take possibly some extra planning, to make sure they get all the nutrients they need.
PS: So what are the key things for parents to be aware of?
KM: I guess one of the issues for the young kids is that a vegan diet is generally less energy-dense and it has more fibre and is more filling. Just getting the quantity of food into a little stomach is in something that needs thought. Sometimes it can be hard to get them to eat the volume of food that they might need.
I guess it’s just a matter of being aware of the key nutrients that might need a bit more work to get in there. The most important one is vitamin B12, ’cause it’s only found in animal products, so it is really important that anyone following a vegan diet is supplementing with B12. To start with, if the child is being breastfed, it’s important that mum has enough B12, that she’s supplementing, because bub will get vitamin B12 from breastmilk, but once weaned, they do need to go onto a B12 supplement or consume an adequate amount of fortified foods. We don’t have a lot of B12 fortified foods in Australia. There are a few kinds of soy milk and a few vegetarian meat alternatives, like patties or vegetarian sausages, but there’s really not a lot, so for most people it will be a supplement.
The other thing to think about is iron. The reason we wean all children at 6 months is because their iron stores are depleted by then. So it’s important for all children, vegan or not, to be including iron-rich foods. It’s really important that plant sources of iron are introduced early on. So that will be things like legumes and tofu.
PS: What should people who are vegan and pregnant be aware of?
KM: I guess it’s the same thing. It is really important, both of during development and also during breastfeeding, that Mum’s got all the nutrition that she needs. Your iron needs are particularly high during pregnancy, so that’s something that does need focus for all women who are pregnant, but if you’re vegan, it is really important to focus on getting adequate iron and make sure you’re getting enough B12.
The other thing is to make sure you’re getting enough omega-3s. Traditionally, we find them in fish and seafood. Omega-3s are important for a baby’s brain development, so it’s really important that pregnant women are getting some plant sources of Omega 3 during pregnancy.
That would be like chia seeds, which are a good source of Omega 3. There are also some vegan Omega 3 supplements which come from algae, rather than from fish. A lot of pregnancy supplements actually contain fish oil, there are only a few that don’t, but for a women who’s vegan, then they would obviously choose one that doesn’t.