Is it safe for kids to eat vegan?

Vegan children can miss out on proper nutrients for growth

A proposed law in Italy would give a jail sentence to parents who feed their child a vegan diet. It follows on the heels of several cases in the country where children were hospitalized with severe malnutrition tied to the diet that eliminates animal-based products, such as meat, fish, cheese, milk and eggs — a key source of protein, among other important nutrients.

“Certain nutrients found in animal products are required for proper growth and development,” said Kim Cooley, registered dietitian with Norton Healthcare. “You have to pay special attention to making sure children get exactly what their growing bodies need. This can be challenging on a vegan diet, but it is possible.”

What are these nutrients?

  • Protein, found in meat and dairy products. Protein is key to proper bone, muscle, hair and skin growth.
  • Vitamin B12, found in fish and dairy products. Vitamin B12 is important for brain development.
  • Calcium and vitamin D, found in dairy products, to keep bones growing strong.
  • Other key elements, including iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, for healthy blood and cells.

Additionally, to be sure a vegan child gets enough calories for growth and energy, his or her diet should contain plenty of “good” fats from sources such as avocados, nuts and seeds.

“Before you consider starting a vegan diet for your child, or if you are vegan and are going to be breastfeeding, talk to your pediatrician about how you can ensure your child gets the necessary nutrients,” Cooley said.

Find out more about eating vegan or speak with your pediatrician if you are not sure your child is getting the nutrients he or she needs. Need a pediatrician? Find one here or by calling (502) 629-KIDS.

Some plant-based foods high in vital nutrients:

  • Protein: nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and soy
  • Vitamin B12: enriched breakfast cereals, fortified soy products and supplements
  • Calcium: dark green vegetables (spinach, bok choy, broccoli, collards, kale, turnip greens), sesame seeds, almonds, red and white beans, soy, dried figs, blackstrap molasses, and fortified nondairy milks, fruit juices and cereals
  • Vitamin D: absorbed through skin from sunshine and in some fortified foods and drinks
  • Iron: soy foods, legumes like lentils and chickpeas, and fortified cereals
  • Zinc: nuts, legumes, miso and other soy products, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, tahini, wheat germ, and whole-grain breads and cereals
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: flaxseed, Mung beans, walnuts, canola oil, soy and supplements

“You can raise a healthy child on a vegan diet if you are educated on nutritional needs and proper meal planning to include the foods that meet them,” Cooley said.

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