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How to not fail at the vegan diet

I have experienced my "parent fails" in my years as a mother.


That kid with the wonky DIY-haircut?


That's my kid (and my lack of cutting skills)


Those girls walking down the street in winter without shoes?


Those are my girls (they own shoes, just choose not to wear them!)


That boy on the hiking trail with a huge tear in the rear of his pants (and no underwear)?


He's mine.


My "parent fails" aren't a big deal most of the time. Just mistakes that teach me to do better next time. Hair grows back, feet warm up, and bare bums can be creatively covered with plastic bags and medical tape.


However, some "parent fails" can cause lifelong damage to your child's health. One of those "permanent parent fails" is a poorly managed vegan diet. Without careful planning, vegan diets can put a child at risk of permanent nerve damage, developmental delays, weak bones, and poor immune systems.


With careful planning, all of those problems can be avoided.


Are you thinking about feeding your child a vegan diet?


If so, keep reading to learn how to "not fail" at this way of eating.


This article is not meant to be medical advice, but a basic guideline to help you plan. If you are thinking about starting a vegan diet, please talk with your medical doctor or pediatrician.


In this blog post:


The 5 main takeaways from this blog post:


Here's basics:


#1. Vegan diets contain no animal foods. Without meat, dairy, eggs and fish it is hard to get enough:

  • Vitamin B12

  • Iron

  • Zinc

  • Calcium

  • Vitamin D


#2. Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D are not found naturally in plant foods. To get enough B12 and vitamin D, Toddlers must:

  1. Eat/drink fortified foods OR

  2. Take a supplement (always ask your doctor for a recommendation) OR

  3. Get it from breastmilk. If your child is less than 1 year and breastfed, make sure the breastfeeding mother eats enough B12 and D


#3. Plant sources of iron are not absorbed as well as meat sources. To get enough iron you should:

  1. Eat a source of iron at every meal (fortified and whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes and dried fruits) and

  2. Eat foods high in vitamin C (like fruits) with every meal (vitamin C helps absorb iron)

  3. Always talk to a doctor before taking iron supplements to avoid iron poisoning

  4. Start iron-fortified infant cereal at 6 months (breastmilk is low in iron)


#4. The best sources of zinc and calcium are:

  • beans

  • nuts

  • leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli)

  • whole grains (like oatmeal)


#5. Raw leafy greens, nuts and seeds are excellent sources of nutrition. They are also choking hazards until age 3. Here are two safe ways for toddlers to eat them:

  • Blending greens, nuts and seeds into a green smoothie

  • Blend beans, nuts and seeds into hummus

  • Stir nut/seed butter into oatmeal


Keep reading for more details about each of these topics!



 


Vitamin B12


Why your child needs it: B12 is an important part of the brain and nervous system, which are developing rapidly during the first years of life. Not getting enough can cause brain damage. It's easy to get enough if you drink soymilk.


Want more info on B12?: click here.


Tips for getting enough:

  • Offer B12 fortified soymilk and cereals. One cup of Silk Soymilk has 3x the amount of B12 your child needs in a day (see chart).


  • Check food labels at the store for foods with B12 content.


  • Notice how B12 content varies between brands. You must frequently check labels to ensure your child gets enough B12 from fortified food sources.

Always ask your pediatrician for help before giving your baby a dietary supplement. If your child eats cereal and drinks soymilk, they probably get plenty.


  • If you are breastfeeding, eat enough B12 so it will be present in your breastmilk (adults need 2.4 micrograms/day)

 




Iron

Why your child needs it: Iron is an essential part of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of your body. Iron is also vital for a baby’s nerve and brain development. Babies who do not get enough iron can have weakness, developmental delays and anemia.


Want to learn more about iron: click here.


Tips for getting enough


  • It's easy to get enough iron if your baby eats fortified cereals.

Without fortified foods, it takes planning to get enough iron from vegan food sources.


  • Plant sources of iron are not well absorbed.

Vitamin C helps with iron absorption. Eat foods high in vitamin C (oranges, kiwis, red bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli) with a source of iron (beans, nuts, cereals, whole grains) to help your body absorb iron.


  • If your baby doesn’t get enough iron from food, ask your pediatrician for help choosing a dietary supplement. Supplements can cause iron poisoning, which can kill an infant, so always ask a physician for help.


 

Zinc

Why your child needs it: Zinc promotes a healthy immune system. It is an important part of your child’s growth and development. Without enough zinc, your baby might get sick more than usual and have developmental delays.


Want to learn more: click here.


Tips for getting enough:

  • Oatmeal is a good source of zinc, providing 50% of a toddler's needs for the day.


  • Blending nut butter or chia seeds into smoothies or oatmeal is an easy way to provide zinc to young children who cannot safely chew nuts and seeds.


  • Breakfast cereals are sometimes fortified with zinc. Check labels to see how much zinc is in the cereal you regularly eat. If there is none, look into a different brand. The amount of zinc varies by brand and variety.









 

Calcium



Why your child needs it: Calcium builds baby’s bones. Without enough calcium, your child could develop weak bones.


Want to learn more? Click here.


Tips for getting enough:


  • Serve 2 to 3 cups of soymilk every day.


  • Offer green vegetables at least twice per day.


  • Green smoothies are the easiest way to eat green leafy vegetables. Making a green smoothie with soy milk, greens and chia seeds is a great way to get enough calcium. I drink a green smoothie every day.










 

Vitamin D


Why your child needs it: Children who do not get enough vitamin D can develop rickets, which is softening of the bones. It is currently thought that getting enough vitamin D might help prevent heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and depression later in life.


Tips for getting enough:

  • Fortified milk, cereal and orange juice are the only vegan food sources of vitamin D.


  • During summer months, the body makes vitamin D from sunlight. The body can't make vitamin D in Utah in winter because the angle of the sun is too low.


  • Every brand has a different amount of vitamin D, you will have to check food labels to know if you are eating enough.


  • Mushrooms sometimes have vitamin D, but only if specifically treated with UV light. Do not count on mushrooms as a reliable source of vitamin D.


  • Ask your pediatrician for help choosing a vitamin D supplement if your child does not get at least 15 micrograms of vitamin D per day.

 


Foods a vegan child should be offered at every meal:


  1. B12 and Vitamin D Fortified soymilk (1 cup, 3 times per day)

    1. Soymilk is better than almond milk. Almond milk is very low in protein! Kids need protein to grow. Almond milk is often not fortified with vitamin B12.

  2. A good source of iron (either iron-fortified cereal, beans or nut butter/ground nuts)

  3. Fruits (vitamin C in fruit helps with iron absorption)

  4. Vegetables (preferably a leafy green or cruciferous like broccoli - the vitamins and minerals are best absorbed from leafy greens + they have more calcium)

  5. Whole grains like cereal, bread, tortilla, oatmeal or other cooked grains


 

Meal Ideas for a Vegan Toddler:


These are simple meal ideas that come from the DDI Nutrition Recipe page. Most are recipes that have been used for our cooking class. Most recipes we make are vegan because vegan meals are actually less expensive than meals with meat and dairy products.


Breakfast Ideas:


#1 Cereal and milk

  • 1 cup silk soymilk

  • ½ to 1 cup iron and zinc fortified cereal (Great Value Toasted O’s are well fortified)

  • ½ cup fruit (strawberries, applesauce, oranges, anything with vitamin C in it)


#2 Oatmeal

  • ½ cup oatmeal cooked in ½ cup soymilk

  • Stir in 2 tablespoons nut butter

  • ½ cup soymilk to drink

  • 1/2 cup orange juice (for vitamin C to help with iron absorption)



  • 1 cup soymilk

  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • 1 cup spinach

  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds

  • ½ frozen banana

  • (blend on high speed)


Snack Ideas:


  • ½ slice of toast

  • 1 tablespoon nut butter (almond butter has more zinc and calcium than peanut butter)

  • fruit smoothie



Lunch Ideas:


  • tortilla stuffed with:

    • hummus

    • chopped spinach leaves

    • chopped bell pepper

    • fruit on the side

OR

  • Iron fortified noodles

    • peanut sauce

    • Baked tofu

    • Cooked collard greens

    • ½ cup fruit - in season

OR

  • LEFTOVERS

  • breakfast foods

  • dinner foods

  • snack foods


Snack Ideas:





Dinner Ideas:












For more great recipes visit my recipe page: https://www.ddinutrition.com/recipes


  • Be sure to include soymilk and fruit on the side of every meal!




References


Saunders AV, Craig WJ, Baines SK, Posen JS. Iron and vegetarian diets. Med J Aust. 2013;199(4 Suppl):S11-16.


Linus Pauling Institute. Vitamin D. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/vitamin-D


National Institutes of Health. Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/


Linus Pauling Institute. Iron. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron


Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/


Zinc. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/zinc



Zinc Fact Sheet for Health Professionals https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/



US Deptartment of Health and Human Services. 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Appendix E-3.1.A4. Nutritional goals for each age/sex group used in assessing adequacy of USDA Food Patterns at various calorie levels. https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/dietary-guidelines/previous-dietary-guidelines/2015/advisory-report/appendix-e-3/appendix-e-31a4


J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2003 Apr;49(2):81-6. doi: 10.3177/jnsv.49.81. Effect of soaking prior to cooking on the levels of phytate and tannin of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris, L.) and the protein value. Elizabete Helbig 1, Admar Costa de Oliveira, Keila da Silva Queiroz, Soely Marie Pissini Machado Reis



Is iron and zinc a concern for young vegans? Hurrell RF. Phytic acid degradation as a means of improving iron absorption. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 2004;74:445–52.


Iron absorption: factors, limitations and improvement factors https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9219084/






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