Having been vegan for a number of years before I had my daughter, I was always curious when I met vegan families with young children. I found it hard to engage anyone in real discussion, however, which may stem from the fact that most often when parents are asked about their choice to follow a vegan diet, the questions are a veiled criticism. It is easy to find cases of vegan children with nutritional deficiencies, and this can make it seem as though this is an inevitability in all vegan families. Fortunately, this is not true. I wanted to share how Annabelle has fared thus far, and look at a few case studies that do exist.
Since the daddy is not vegan, it’s unlikely that Annabelle will remain vegan throughout early childhood. It’s very likely that she will want to try some of the things her daddy eats in the years to come, and I don’t intend to place undue restrictions on her when it comes to food. For now, however, I prepare all of our meals and everything I put in front of Annabelle is vegan.
- Prior to becoming pregnant, I had been vegan for six years. I continued a vegan diet throughout my pregnancy, and still do.
- I supplemented with B12, when I remembered, which admittedly was not often enough. Since I use nutritional yeast liberally, my poor memory probably didn’t do me too much damage. I took no other vitamins or supplements prior to pregnancy.
- When I learned that I was pregnant, I immediately began taking a vegetarian prenatal vitamin with B12 and iron.
- Because I was vegan, my doctor gave me a referral to see a dietitian. I didn’t feel I needed it, but was not about to turn down a free service or be haphazard about the health of my unborn child, so I went. I learned a few tips for increasing my iron absorption, but otherwise was told my diet was excellent.
- At her birth, I requested delayed cord clamping and cutting to ensure that Annabelle got the full benefits of her iron rich cord blood.
- I continued to take a prenatal vitamin with iron and B12 as I breastfed Annabelle exclusively for the first seven months of her life.
- Because I was supplementing my own diet with vitamin D through my prenatal, and we spend plenty of time outdoors here at 14 degrees north of the equator, I chose not to give Annabelle Vitamin D drops as the AAP recommends.
- At seven months, despite introducing some complementary foods, I continued to take prenatal vitamins.
- As Annabelle’s intake of complementary foods has increased, I have taken care to include foods rich in iron such as hemp seeds and blackstrap molasses every day and I have transitioned from the prenatal vitamin to Floradix liquid iron, which includes B12. I also take care to eat foods rich in iron each day and cook in cast iron often. For added B12, I continue to use nutritional yeast on both her food and mine.
- Annabelle is still breastfed, at least five times per day, usually more.
- Lab work early in my pregnancy revealed that I was borderline anemic. This was not surprising, as my iron levels were never particularly high, and iron deficiency is common among the women in my family – including those who eat meat. I upped my iron intake.
- Labs taken later in my pregnancy and on the day my daughter was born revealed that I was no longer anemic.
- Annabelle was born at full term (40 weeks and 2 days), and at a normal weight (6lbs15oz). She lost only five ounces in the first days before my milk came in, and once nursing was well established she had perfectly normal gains.
- Because of our vegan diet and my history of low iron, I requested that Annabelle’s iron levels be checked at 9 months rather than waiting until a year as the pediatrician normally would have done. Her iron levels were normal.
- At 12 months, Annabelle’s pediatrician requested that we check her calcium and phosphorous and Vitamin D levels. Again, everything came back normal.
- At 14 months, Annabelle is energetic and happy and loves to eat her vegetables. She began walking before nine months, and continues to advance in all of her motor, communication, and self-care skills.
Vegan Children Elsewhere
I have written before about the consensus on vegan diets for children among the American Academy of Pediatrics, US Department of Agriculture, American Dietetic Association, and the American Heart Association: vegan diets are perfectly healthful and adequate as long as they are carefully planned.
A look at a few studies…
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at vegetarian diets and children and concluded that, “If known pitfalls are avoided, the growth and development of children reared on both vegan and vegetarian diets appears normal.”
“The growth and development of children born of vegan mothers and reared on a vegan diet has been studied longitudinally: All of the children were breast-fed for the first 6 mo of life and in most cases well into the second year of life. The majority of children grew and developed normally but they did tend to be smaller in stature and lighter in weight than standards for the general population. Energy, calcium, and vitamin D intakes were usually below the recommended amounts. Their diets, however, were generally adequate but a few children had low intakes of riboflavin and vitamin B-12. Most parents were aware of the need to supplement the diet with vitamin B-12. It is concluded that provided sufficient care is taken, a vegan diet can support normal growth and development.”
“Severe nutritional deficiencies developed in four infants from a new vegan religious community. They had received breast milk until the age of 3 months; thereafter, breast milk was supplemented with or replaced by extremely low caloric-density preparations. All of the infants had profound protein-caloric malnutrition, severe rickets, osteoporosis, and vitamin B12 and other deficiencies. One infant died, while the three others had an uneventful recovery. After discharge of the infants from the hospital, the community responded well to a modification of the infants’ diet, which did not violate their vegetarian philosophy. However, they refused to give their infants vitamin B12 on a regular basis.”
This appears to discuss a very similar population, if not the same one.
Do you see what I see? I have to think that the health of the children in the last study had a lot to do with the cessation of exclusive breastfeeding after just three months. In any case, a look at all of this information leaves one with a few impressions: Vegan diets can provide adequate nutrition for children, and in fact do provide it for many. There is also the potential for severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies, though these are not unique to vegan children. It is crucial that vegan parents consider “common pitfalls” and plan meals in order to avoid them.
Are you a vegan or vegetarian family? How do you plan your meals to avoid “common pitfalls? I would love to hear your story, too.