Many of us are growing more and more aware of our environmental impact, and we’re making a number of lifestyle changes to help improve the world we live in. For some, that means cutting back on single-use plastics, or trying to reduce food waste. For others, it means switching out their family’s foods for plant-based alternatives, or going fully vegan.
But, when it comes to little ones, how safe is a vegan diet? Are there any small swaps you can make? How do you wean a baby in a vegan household? To find out, we asked qualified BANT registered nutritionist Nicola Ragon-Paxton from I Love Greens.
Opt for whole foods
One myth that seems to perpetuate online is that food is instantly healthy just because it’s labelled as ‘vegan’, Just because it contains no meat or animal produce doesn’t make it good for you. As Nicola explains. ‘Ultra processed vegan food has the same negative effects on health as all other ultra processed food’. If you want to make sure you and your baby are eating healthy, Nicola suggests that you focus on ‘whole-food plant based’ meals instead.
Of course, it’s always tempting to rely on processed foods when you’re a busy parent. The best way to avoid this temptation is through meal planning and preparation. ‘Batch cook and freeze meals’, says Nicola, ‘and use leftovers for the next day’. If you’re going to be out, pack some homemade snacks and lunch to take with you. That way, you know your little one is benefiting from fresh, plant based whole-foods.
One of the most popular vegan switches is to opt for a plant-based milk or yoghurt, with lots more of us moving away from cow’s milk. But are they giving your child the right nutrients they need?
When you’re shopping for dairy alternatives, Nicola recommends searching for ones that are ‘fortified with calcium and vitamin B12, as a minimum’. These are found naturally in dairy, and are an important part of a growing child’s diet. As your little one’s body develops, they need calcium to support their growing bones, and B12 for their bones, blood, hair, skin, and more.
Nicola also reminds us that ‘plant based dairy alternatives are lower in fat, protein and calories’ than animal products. If you’re opting for vegan-friendly dairy products, you’ll want to make sure your child is still getting enough fat and protein in other areas of their diet instead.
One way to ensure your child is still getting the nutrients they need on a vegan diet is by adding certain things to their meals. There are a number of super foods that can be mixed in, sprinkled on top, or cooked into dishes to up their nutrient value.
- Adding peanut butter to porridge – peanut butter adds protein to this yummy breakfast, and it also offers heart-healthy fats, vitamin E, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B6.
- Mixing ground flax into vegan yoghurt – flaxseeds provide the perfect fibre boost for little ones, helping to improve gut health,
- Sprinkling some mixed seeds on-top of homemade muffins – full of healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.
- Adding nutritional yeast to sauces and stews – there are a number of these available that can help give a little boost to your child’s nutritional intake
If you’re opting for a vegan diet, talk to a nutritionist regarding supplements to make sure your child isn’t missing anything from their diet. To ensure they’re developing correctly and healthily, it’s very important that your little one is getting all of the nutrients they need – with a vegan diet, some of these will have to be supplemented.
Our bodies need a number of essential amino acids to grow and function properly. Often referred to as the building blocks of protein, these little compounds are found in protein-rich foods. If you and your little one aren’t incorporating meat and fish into your diets, then you could be missing out on the amino acids your bodies need.
‘Look into protein combining to ensure all the essential amino acids are eaten across a day,’ Nicola recommends. Each plant has a different amino acid profile, so make sure you’re including a good variety.
Hummus is a great option as it contains a number of essential amino acids from the chickpeas and tahini. Check out our recipe for six healthy ways your baby can eat hummus.
Nicola is a qualified nutritionist and founder of ‘I Love Greens’. She specialises in supporting parents to feed and nourish their family in the best way possible, and has a special interest in infant food allergies and fussy eating. I Love Greens provides a number of weaning workshops, masterclasses and discussions to help you and your little one eat well.