- Toddlers can eat a vegan diet, but they should be carefully monitored - preferably by a paediatric dietician
- A vegan diet for toddlers will likely need to be supplemented, particularly by Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D
- When toddlers are growing, their energy requirements are higher than adults (relative to body weight)
- A high-enough calorie intake can be challenging to achieve on a vegan diet
- If energy and macronutrient intake is insufficient, toddlers on a vegan diet can become stunted and suffer developmental disorders
If you are vegan yourself, you might be wondering if your toddler can eat a vegan diet too?
Or, even if you aren’t vegan, you may have heard about the reported health benefits of a vegan diet and are curious if your toddler could benefit?
In this article, we explore the latest scholarly research. Some of this research has determined that toddlers can eat a vegan diet, but it should be carefully monitored - preferably by a dietician. It is likely their diet will also need to be supplemented.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a type of vegetarian diet . It is characterised by a complete absence of any animal foods and byproducts. That means dairy products and eggs are also absent from a vegan diet and only plant-based foods are eaten.
“Australia is the third-fastest growing vegan market in the world” trailing only United Arab Emirates and China.
What constitutes a balanced diet for a toddler?
Because young children grow and change rapidly, so do their dietary needs. In fact, “during growth, energy and nutrient requirements are higher than for adults relative to their body weight.” This is why there is so much scientific debate over the suitability of a vegan diet for children - because getting enough calories into the body can be more challenging with veganism.
Raisingchildren.net.au provides helpful dietary guides for 1-2 year old toddlers and 2-3 year old toddlers.
“Suggested daily serves are ½ serve of fruit; 2-3 serves of vegies; 1-1½ serves of dairy; 4 serves of grains; and 1 serve of lean meats, eggs, nut pastes and legumes.”
“Suggested daily serves are 1 serve of fruit; 2½ serves of vegies; 1½ serves of dairy; 4 serves of grains; and 1 serve of lean meats, nut pastes and legumes.”
For further details on the sizes of serves, please see their online guides .
Is it possible to have a balanced vegan diet for toddlers?
Vegan Australia’s position is that it is possible for toddlers to eat a balanced vegan diet and this may, in fact, result in a healthier diet than non-vegan children eat. However, they agree that supplementation is likely necessary in order to meet their specific nutrient requirements.
A study was undertaken of 430 1-3 year old children in Germany to determine if a vegan diet impacted growth , compared to omnivorous children. The study, which gathered data on each child over a 3-day period, examined the energy and macronutrient intake of the toddlers.
It concluded that it is possible for children eating a vegan diet to consume adequate energy and macronutrients to have normal growth.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
Studies of adult populations eating a vegan diet found there were a variety of health benefits, particularly in terms of reducing the risk of chronic diseases . This included cardiovascular diseases, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers.
But, unfortunately, “there is no clear evidence that a vegan diet started in early childhood confers a lasting health benefit.” This is important to note for those who are interested in their toddlers starting a vegan diet because of the purported health benefits.
However, there may be benefits to children outside of the “physical”. Healthy body attitudes tend to be common among adolescents and young adults who were raised on vegan and vegetarian diets as children.
What are the risks of inadequate supply of nutrients?
According to an article published by the Nestle Nutrition Institute, some of the nutrients that are significant to a toddler’s growth and development include:
- Long-chain fatty acids (like DHA)
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B12
The risks of inadequate nutrient intake by toddlers are severe, to the point they can result in an irreversible developmental disorder.
Despite the aforementioned German study finding that toddlers could safely eat a vegan diet, there was evidence that if it is not done properly, the toddler’s growth and development is put at risk , so this should be considered carefully.
In fact, there was a small percentage of vegan and vegetarian children in the study who were classified as stunted. The authors of the study therefore concluded that this “should emphasize the importance of adequate energy and nutrient intake for children on VG (vegetarian) and VN (vegan) diets.”
Because plant-based foods tend to be higher in dietary fibre, this can also pose issues. Too much fibre may inhibit absorption of iron, zinc and calcium. So even though it looks on paper as though their intake of iron, for example, may be adequate, if fibre consumption is too high, the iron may not be adequately absorbed by the body.
In a previous Wriggly Toes article about toddlers eating salmon, we talked about the importance of DHA as part of a toddler’s diet, as it cannot be synthesized adequately by the liver at such a young age. Without enough DHA, a toddler is at risk of their nerve tissues being underdeveloped and in severe cases, may have cognitive delays. For this reason, if following a vegan diet, one scientific article “recommends a supplementary source of preformed DHA ” should be taken.
One scholarly article concluded that “even with a well-balanced and optimized variety of vegan food sources, it remains mandatory to supplement vitamin B12 and vitamin D as a minimum.” Why is Vitamin B12 highlighted here? Well, the only reliable dietary source is animal products, such as eggs, milk, meat and fish. B12 is essential to DNA and RNA synthesis , so a deficiency can be evident in bone marrow and intestinal function, as well as nervous system maintenance.
Who can help ensure a toddler’s vegan diet is adequately nutritious?
Aside from being well-informed as a parent or carer, there are medical experts that can assist you to maintain a healthy vegan diet for your toddler.
Dieticians work alongside other health care professionals to provide advice and recipes that can help to manage a condition (like intolerances or diabetes). Or they ensure a diet is suitably nutritious which should therefore prevent a condition from forming (such as potential malnutrition or poor growth in the case of toddlers eating a vegan diet).
You do not need a GP referral to see a dietician, but it can be helpful to keep your GP in the loop regarding your child’s health and also to ask if there are any test results that may be helpful to give to the dietician before seeing them.
It isn’t mandatory, but they may recommend regular blood tests in order to monitor your toddler’s nutritional health . If you can, look for a dietician who specialises in paediatrics.
What about the social aspect of being a vegan?
In 2019, the Australia Talks National Survey published that just 1% of Australians are vegan . Despite increasing interest in the vegan diet and its reported benefits, it’s fair to say the vegan diet is not mainstream.
And as with all things outside of the norm, they can be difficult to discuss among those who don’t share your own views. In fact, admitting you’re a vegetarian or vegan “has the potential to be awkward or even to trigger interpersonal conflict.”
This is true when we’re adults, but what of toddlers who are only just learning how to talk?
According to two Accredited Practicing Dieticians, Louisa Matwiejczyk and Nicole Dynan, the key to helping your child become confident with having a different diet to others is to explain to them that people make different dietary choices - and that’s ok.
We should be proud of our own way of eating, but also respectful of the eating patterns of others. Encourage them not to be embarrassed, and openly discuss your own reasons behind dietary choices - whether they be environmental, ethical or otherwise.
Final thoughts on whether toddlers should eat a vegan diet
Embarking on a vegan diet for toddlers should never be done lightly. There are many reasons why individuals and their families choose to “go vegan” but the health of your children should always come first.
That is why a vegan diet should only ever be an option for a toddler if you are certain you can give their diet the careful monitoring it may need, as well as the willingness to seek professional support.