Vegan Wonder

Raising Healthy, Thriving Vegan Children: Separating Fact from Fiction

If you’re considering raising your child on a vegan diet, you may have heard some scary stories about the dangers of doing so. Some people claim that children simply can’t grow and develop properly without eating meat and dairy. While it’s true that vegan diets can be challenging to plan if you’re not familiar with how to do it, many parents and experts say that it’s absolutely possible to raise healthy, happy, thriving kids on a plant-based diet.

Common Concerns About Vegan Diets for Children

Some of the most common concerns about vegan diets for children include:

  • Adequate nutrient intake for growth and development
  • Potential nutrient deficiencies
  • Impact on physical and mental development

Addressing Misconceptions

While these are valid concerns, many people have misconceptions about what it takes to raise a healthy vegan child. Let’s debunk some of the most common myths:

  1. Myth: Vegan diets lack essential nutrients
  2. Myth: Vegan children struggle to grow properly
  3. Myth: Vegan diets harm children’s health

None of these myths are backed up by scientific evidence. In fact, there is a growing body of research showing that vegan children can grow and develop just as well as their peers who eat animal products. However, it does take some planning to make sure that they are getting all of the nutrients that they need.

The Science of Vegan Childhood Nutrition

So what are the key nutrients that children need, and how do you make sure that you’re getting enough of them on a vegan diet? Here’s a breakdown of some of the most important nutrients for childhood growth and development, along with vegan-friendly food sources:

  • Protein is essential for building and repairing tissues in the body. Good plant-based sources of protein include lentils, chickpeas, beans, quinoa, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, whole grains, and leafy greens.
  • Iron is important for delivering oxygen to cells throughout the body. You can get iron from spinach, lentils, chickpeas, fortified cereals, and molasses.
  • Calcium is crucial for building strong bones and teeth. Dairy products are not the only source of calcium—dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fortified plant-based milks, and fortified orange juice are all good options.
  • Vitamin B12 is necessary for brain development and nerve function. It’s found naturally in animal products, but fortified plant-based milks, certain plant-based meat alternatives, and some nutritional yeasts are good sources.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain and eye development. You can get them from flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, soybeans, edamame, and seaweed.

It’s also important to note that some children may be at higher risk of nutrient deficiencies, such as those with restricted diets or digestive issues. Vegan children may be more likely to have lower levels of vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iodine, so it’s a good idea to talk to your pediatrician about whether supplements are recommended.

Studies have shown that vegan children grow at rates similar to their non-vegan peers, and that they tend to have lower body mass indexes (BMIs)—which may be a good thing, given the high rates of obesity in children. One study that followed 45 vegan children over the course of three years found that all of them were meeting their nutritional needs, and that those who were planning their diets carefully were growing better than the others.

Real-Life Vegan Parenting Experiences

Jessica Mickelson is the mother of two vegan children: a 7-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. She and her husband made the switch to a vegan diet when their daughter was 18 months old, after doing research about the health and environmental benefits of plant-based eating.

“We just wanted to make sure that we were giving her the healthiest diet possible,” Mickelson says. “We knew that it was going to take some extra planning and effort, but we were committed to doing it.”

The family’s pediatrician was supportive of their decision, and helped them come up with a meal plan that included a variety of nutrient-dense foods. Mickelson says that they make sure to include lots of leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and seeds in their meals, and try to eat a rainbow of different fruits and vegetables every day.

“It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely doable,” she says. “We’ve had to get creative with some recipes, and we’ve had to learn how to cook some things that we weren’t familiar with before. But it’s been worth it.”

Dr. Alisa Belfort, a pediatrician and the medical director of the Child Health Advocacy Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, says that she has seen many families successfully transition their children to a vegan diet.

“It can be challenging, but it’s not impossible,” she says. “The most important thing is to work with your pediatrician to make sure that you’re getting all of the nutrients that your child needs.”

Belfort recommends that parents start by making sure that their child is getting enough protein, iron, and calcium. She also suggests offering fortified plant-based milks to children under the age of 5, since they may not get enough vitamin D from the sun. And she stresses the importance of eating a variety of foods, rather than relying on just a few favorites.

Advice from Vegan Pediatric Experts

Dr. Sharon Collison, a pediatrician and the director of the Nutrition Clinic at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, has seen many vegan children in her practice over the years. She says that the most common challenge that parents face is getting enough iron in their child’s diet.

“Iron is really important for brain development, and it’s something that kids need a lot of,” she says. “And plant-based sources of iron are not as easily absorbed by the body as animal-based sources.”

Collison recommends offering iron-fortified cereal at breakfast, along with other sources of iron throughout the day, such as lentils, chickpeas, spinach, and molasses. She also suggests serving iron-rich foods with vitamin C, which can help the body absorb the iron more efficiently.

When it comes to transitioning to a vegan diet, Collison says that it’s important to do it gradually, rather than making too many changes too quickly.

“I would suggest starting with one or two meals a week, and then gradually working your way up to having vegan meals every day,” she says. “It’s also important to involve your child in the planning and preparation of meals, so that they feel like they have some control over what they’re eating.”

Collison says that she has never seen a vegan child in her practice who was not growing properly. But she does keep a close eye on their growth and development, and refers some children to a pediatric gastroenterologist for further evaluation if she has concerns.

Practical Tips for Vegan Families

Here are some more practical tips for raising a healthy vegan child:

Meal Planning for Vegan Children

  • Make sure that you’re offering a variety of nutrient-dense foods at every meal, such as beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, whole grains, leafy greens, and colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Plan ahead for meals and snacks when you’re out and about, so that you’re not relying on junk food or fast food options.
  • Get creative with recipes, and try to find ways to make your family’s favorite dishes vegan.

Navigating Social Situations and Skepticism

  • Be prepared to answer questions from family members, friends, and even strangers about how you’re going to make sure that your child is getting all of the nutrients that they need.
  • Have some resources on hand, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position paper on vegetarian diets, to share with those who are skeptical.
  • Encourage your child to stand up for their beliefs, and help them come up with responses to common questions and teasing.

Remember that raising a healthy, happy, thriving vegan child takes some extra planning and effort, but it’s absolutely possible. With the right knowledge and support, you can give your child the best start in life—and set them up for a lifetime of good health.