Plant-based diets have been becoming more popular lately. Whether that means being vegetarian, vegan, or just trying to incorporate more vegetables, you may be wondering if this is a good way to feed your baby (Looking for more information on starting solids? Start here). There are many factors at play. It is important to note that no matter if you are a vegetarian, vegan, or omnivore, you will need to focus on a few key nutrients for your baby.
What does plant-based even mean?
This is a question many people will argue over. Some people define it as being completely vegan whereas other define it as having a high percentage of plants in the diet, along with animal products. The more foods you omit from the diet, the more aware you will need to be of possible missing nutrients.
This group may not omit any foods from their diet, but focuses on getting a higher percentage of plant foods in their diet than the typical American diet. This diet would be high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and pulses, but will still include meat, dairy, and eggs.
Vegetarians do not consume meat, but will generally still eat products made by animals. There are several different varieties of vegetarians and depending on which foods they do or do not eat, they will need to watch out for different nutrients.
- Lacto-vegetarians will drink milk and eat dairy products. They will avoid egg products and other animal products.
- Ovo-vegetarians will eat eggs, but will avoid milk and dairy products.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians will drink milk and eat eggs and dairy. This is the least restrictive of the vegetarian group.
Vegans will not consume any animal products. This includes milk, dairy, and eggs. Their diet consists of only plant foods. This diet will be the most restrictive.
Do plant-based kids get the nutrients they need?
Recently a study was published that compared the intakes and some blood lab levels of different nutrients in kids who were omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans (1). The study looked specifically at preschoolers in Germany. They did find that nutrient intakes were different among the children, but overall, the children were meeting their needs.
- Vegetarians and vegans consumed more vitamin E, B1, folate, magnesium, iron*, and unsaturated fat than omnivores. (*Do note that the iron in plant foods is not absorbed as well as the iron in animal foods)
- Omnivores consumed more vitamin B2, calcium, and DHA (omega 3 fatty acids).
- None of the groups met recommendations for vitamin D.
- Vegetarians and vegans who took supplements met their needs for vitamin B12, however those that didn’t take supplements, did not meet their needs. (Vitamin B12 supplement is routinely recommended for vegans and vegetarians).
So what should plant-based parents focus on?
- Iron: because plant sources of iron are not absorbed as well, it’s especially important that plant-based kids get enough. You can pair with vitamin C foods to help increase absorption. In my Starting Solids Made Easy Course, I have a handout that lists information on where to get key nutrients, like iron and calcium.
- Calcium: this is especially important for kids who do not eat dairy. If you are using an alternative milk, try to find one that is fortified with calcium. Fortified tofu is another great option.
- Speak with your child’s pediatrician about supplementing with B12. This is generally recommended for vegan and vegetarian kids, as B12 comes from animal products.
- Also speak with your child’s pediatrician about possible supplementation for vitamin D and DHA. There are very few food sources of vitamin D and depending on where you live it can be impossible to get it year round. DHA is found in animal foods. ALA is found in plant foods, but is not converted into DHA as well.
Is a plant-based diet better for my child?
There are pros and cons to every eating style. If your family already eats plant-based, there is no NEED to introduce animal products to your child. If your family eats animal products, there is no NEED to cut them out. You can offer a healthy diet either way. Whatever works best for your family IS best for your family. If you’re looking for more information on taking the stress out of feeding your family, check out my Family Meals Made Easy Course.
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.