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Vegan diets for pregnancy, new moms & children: Are they safe? What you need to know

Some parents are concerned about whether it's safe for babies or children to consume a vegan diet.

Mother and daughter making vegan smoothie. The vegan diet has become popular in recent years, but is it safe for infants and children? (Photo via Getty Images)
The vegan diet has become popular in recent years, but is it safe for infants and children? (Photo via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

In recent years, a vegan diet has become popular for its supposed health benefits and ability to save you money.

However, some parents and caregivers are concerned about whether it's safe for babies or children to consume a vegan diet.

In fact, according to a 2016 study by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, following a balanced diet can be healthy and nutritionally sound for people of all ages and stages of life — including young children and pregnant mothers.

That said, if you plan to raise your child vegan, there are things to do to make sure they get all essential nutrients.

Read on for everything you need to know about veganism for children, as well general advice and if it's safe for nursing mothers.

pregnancy, healthy food and people concept - close up of happy pregnant woman eating vegetable salad for breakfast vegan in bed at home
Parents and expectant mothers have to understand the shortcomings of the vegan diet. (Photo via Getty Images)

What is a vegan diet?

According to My Health Alberta, the vegan diet is a type of vegetarian diet.

Vegans do not consume foods that come from animals in any way. This includes meat, milk and dairy products, eggs, honey and gelatin (which is often made from bones or other animal tissue).

People choose to be vegan for a variety of reasons, such as the health benefits it offers or because it's a cost-effective way of eating.

Additionally, people can go vegan for environmental, ethical or religious reasons.

It's very safe to be vegan, but you must educate yourself on how to avoid nutritional deficiencies.Alyssa Fontaine

Is a vegan diet safe for babies, children and expectant mothers?

Babies and children

Alyssa Fontaine, a vegan registered dietitian and the founder of Plant Based Dietitians, says it's safe for children to be vegan — but parents have to understand the shortcomings of the diet.

"It's very safe to be vegan, but you must educate yourself on how to avoid nutritional deficiencies," the content creator told Yahoo Canada.

To combat these deficiencies, Fontaine recommends parents build a vegan plate with all the essential macro and micronutrients.

Specifically, make sure your child has a source of protein, vitamin C, carbohydrates and healthy fats in every meal. Adequate vegetable and fruit intake is also key.

However, omega-3s, calcium and vitamin B12 are more difficult to obtain through vegan eating.

Lovely little Asian girl grocery shopping with her mother in supermarket, choosing dairy product on the shelf along the vegan dairy aisle. Routine grocery shopping. Healthy eating lifestyle
Omega-3's, calcium and vitamin B12 are more difficult to obtain through vegan eating. (Photo via Getty Images)

"Focus on the food groups and building a balanced plate first, then address your shortcomings with fortified foods or supplements that focus on calcium, omegas and B12," Fontaine said. "Soy milk has lots of protein, calcium and is calorie-dense, so we recommend that as well."

That said, Fontaine says infants shouldn't start the vegan diet until they are 12 months old.

Between six and 12 months of age, the dietitian says it's important to introduce common allergens for safety reasons, such as eggs, seafood and dairy.

"Even if you're vegan for ethical reasons, you don't want your child to find out later in life they are allergic to these foods. This is for their overall health and safety," Fontaine explained.

Focus on the food groups and building a balanced plate first.Alyssa Fontaine

Expectant and breastfeeding mothers

Alex Caspero, MA, RD, and co-founder of Plant Based Juniors, says the vegan diet is safe for expectant and new mothers. But like Fontaine, she adds that specific nutrients need to be considered.

The dietitian explains approximately 77 per cent of breastfed infants have inadequate iron intake during the second half of infancy, so iron needs to be supplemented or addressed.

Additionally, Caspero says pregnant mothers must beware of other key nutrients to help keep them and their baby safe and healthy.

"The nutrients of focus would be iron, B12, omega-3 fatty acids (DHA), iodine and vitamin D," Caspero told Yahoo Canada. "When I'm working with these clients, I ensure that they are consuming these nutrients either through foods or through supplements."

Organic Raw Soy vegan Tofu on a Background
Tofu is a versatile source of vegan protein. (Photo via Getty Images)

What are some misconceptions about a vegan diet?

According to Fontaine, one of the misconceptions about the vegan diet is that you have to learn an entirely new way of cooking.

This isn't true — instead, the dietitian suggests making simple swaps to the meals you regularly cook.

"Instead of a chicken stir fry, use tofu cubes. Or swap out cow's milk for soy milk. You don't have to reinvent the wheel," Fontaine said.

Additionally, Fontaine wants to remind readers that just because vegans don't eat meat and dairy, doesn't mean they don't get enough protein. In fact, beans and some seeds can have the same amount of protein as certain meats per serving.

"If you take the time to just educate yourself about these foods and nutrients and plan for it, then there's usually no issues," Fontaine said.

A plant-rich diet that contains a lot of fruits and vegetables may actually help protect some pregnancy complications.Alex Caspero

Benefits of the vegan diet for babies, children and expectant mothers

While there are many benefits of veganism, Fontaine says soy — a staple in the vegan diet — can help reduce certain health risks.

Soy is found in common plant-based foods including soy milk, tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso and soy sauce.

"What we see in studies is that kids who start eating soy early have more protection against prostate and breast cancer, which is a huge benefit," Fontaine said.

"The other benefits is if you're doing whole foods plant-based, you are getting more fibre and antioxidants which is good for the child's gut health," she added.

Caspero says the vegan diet might also help prevent some pregnancy complications.

"A plant-rich diet that contains a lot of fruits and vegetables may actually help protect some pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia (high blood pressure) and gestational diabetes," she said.

Anonymous female dining healthy vegan plant-based salad in bowl with avocado, cashew, micro-greens, pok choi, chickpeas, tomato, lettuce, cucumber, sesame. Flexitarian fatty acids and dietary fiber
The vegan diet can help reduce certain health risks, such as prostate and breast cancer. (Photo via Getty Images)

Advice from dietitians

If you're looking to go vegan, experts say it's OK to not be perfect — and to lean on resources to help.

"Every bit of plant-based eating is beneficial... we try to encourage getting more plants on the plate, regardless of what else is served," Caspero said.

Fontaine also added it's important to be gentle and compassionate with yourself.

"Take the time to read books or articles created by dieticians or doctors or see an actual professional about embarking on the vegan diet for you and your child," she said.

Additionally, Fontaine says meal planning is huge in making sure both you and your child get essential nutrients.

"I find that people who have the best diets are people who plan in advance. If you don't plan, you don't take the time to cook whether you're omnivore, vegan, flexitarian, vegetarian. The reality is you're gonna go towards processed food," Fontaine concluded.

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