Raising baby vegan
Arlene Harris looks at the challenges of bringing babies up on an animal product-free diet
Although there are no official figures for the number of vegans in Ireland, if global trends are to be believed, an increasing number of people are adopting the animal product-free diet every day.
And while for adults this is their own choice, their children will naturally follow suit and eat the diet which is provided in the household.
Some argue that children will not get sufficient nutrition from a diet devoid of animal products, but Dr Marian O'Reilly, chief specialist in nutrition with safefood.eu says following a meat-free diet is perfectly acceptable as long as parents do their utmost to ensure their children are eating sufficient amounts of the 'right food groups'.
But this can be problematic and time-consuming.
"A vegan diet can be sufficient for babies and young children but only if great care is taken and it is difficult to achieve," she says. "This diet is very restrictive for them and with it, there is an increased potential for lower intakes of iron, protein, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. The source of iron and calcium in vegan foods is also less bio-available (less useable in our bodies) than those from animal sources.
"The same applies for a vegetarian diet, however a vegetarian diet would contain more calcium and vitamin B12."
Margaret O' Neill, National Dietetic Advisor for the HSE, agrees and says eating well is essential for children in their early years.
"There is clear evidence that the first 1,000 days of life (the nine months of pregnancy and the first two years of life) are particularly critical for ensuring healthy growth and development and to ensure all children meet their full potential," she says. "It is also important that children aged 2-5 years eat well to establish good eating patterns, to grow and develop appropriately and meet their developmental goals.
"In developed countries like Ireland, where food is plentiful and where there is a wide range of options available to ensure a complete diet, it may be possible for infants and children to get all the nutrition they need from a vegetable-based diet but it requires considerable planning and professional support to ensure adequate growth and nutritional adequacy."
Mother-of-one, Sarah Wyatt is planning to bring up her children in a vegan household and can't see where the problem lies.
"I became vegetarian when I was in my mid-20s and turned vegan about two years ago," says the Dublin woman, who is originally from London. "I find it really annoying when so-called experts say that we are not getting enough nutrition because I am very healthy and am hardly ever sick.
"My daughter is 18 months old and is still being breast fed, but the solids I give to her are purely vegan and she is perfectly healthy and thriving. I have been told by my doctor that while I am a healthy person, I was on a 'balanced diet' as a child which helped me to grow and should therefore give my daughter the same opportunity. But I don't buy the idea that children have to have milk and eggs and definitely not meat as there is no need for it at all - to be honest, I think it is more down to keeping the farming industry going than anything else."
But Dr O'Reilly doesn't agree and says there are many issues which could arise if a young child is not getting a varied diet which includes the vitamins found in dairy, fish and meat.
"Without a balanced diet, there is an increased potential for lower intakes of iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B-12," she says. "In addition, babies and toddlers need a calorie-dense diet. Meeting their total calorie needs may be a bit more challenging as a lot of the foods in vegan and vegetarian diets are quite high in fibre. These foods are usually promoted as a good source of iron and this can pose another challenge to young children who should actually eat less fibre than adults.
"Fortified foods and supplements may be used but care must be taken not to give a baby or child too much of one particular nutrient - and on top of that, using fortified foods and age-appropriate supplements costs money."
"Vegan diets have generally been discouraged during childhood due to the risk of nutritional deficiency," adds expert Margaret O'Neill. "But the European Society for Paediatric, Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition Guidelines (ESPGHAN) published in 2017, advise that vegan diets for children are possible if medical and dietary advice regarding supplementation is followed." (See panel right.)
"If a parent chooses to wean an infant onto a vegan diet this should be done under regular medical and expert dietetic supervision," warns Margaret O'Neill. "It is important to follow appropriate nutritional advice from a CORU-registered dietitian to prevent compromising the nutritional quality of the diet or negatively impacting on growth and development. Parents should receive and follow nutritional advice as, for example, vitamin B12 deficiency is a challenge in vegan diets."
Dr Marian O'Reilly says while experts advise people to follow the food pyramid, everyone has different lifestyles and personal ideals, so it is difficult to advise a one-size-fits-all diet for the entire country - but variety is the spice of life.
"Healthy eating guidelines for 1-5-year-olds are currently being developed and should be available later this year, but in general in Ireland, our healthy eating guidelines provide for portions of foods for different age groups rather than percentages," she says. "The proportions (for babies and children) would be similar to the ones for adults, with carbohydrates representing the main source of energy, protein as paramount for growth at this young age, dairy sources for calcium intake and fruit and vegetables for fibre and important vitamins and minerals.
"Unfortunately there's no straightforward answer as to what constitutes a healthy diet for babies and toddlers as they eat quite differently and go through different phases. But our top advice would be to have lots of variety from the moment food is introduced - this ensures adequate nutrient and calorie intake and promotes a varied diet for their future - and stick with it as it can take up to 15 times before babies and toddlers accept a new food."
Regardless of cost and guidelines, many people are choosing to bring up their children on a vegan or vegetarian diet for ethical or lifestyle reasons and a spokesperson for the HSE says if this is the case, parents should pay particular attention to their growing child's diet and include:
Iron - which is found in:
● Fortified cereals
● Beans and lentils
● Wholegrains - such as brown rice and wholemeal bread
● Dark-green vegetables
● Dried fruit, such as apricots, prunes and figs
Protein - which is found in:
● Finely ground nuts (do not give whole nuts to under-fives as it can be choking hazard) - providing there is no history of allergy.
● Beans and lentils, and foods made from them - such as tofu, hummus and soya mince
Calcium - which is found in:
● Whole milk and full-fat dairy products
● Unsweetened calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as soya drinks, from the age of 1 as part of a balanced diet. Rice milk isn't suitable for children under 5 years because it may contain high levels of naturally occurring arsenic.
● Other sources of calcium include bread, leafy green vegetables - such as cabbage and broccoli, cabbage- and almond nut butter.
Vitamin B12 - which is found in:
● Animal foods including eggs, cheese and milk so those following a vegan diet should take foods fortified with B12 or take a supplement containing it such as baby cereals, soya yoghurt and non-dairy milk.
Omega-3 - which is found in:
● Soya oil and soya-based foods, such as tofu
● Rapeseed oil
● Flaxseed (linseed) oil
● Walnuts - offer these ground or as a nut butter for children under 5 to reduce the risk of choking
● Eggs enriched with omega-3