You might be a parent who is vegan who is considering transitioning your children to a vegan diet. Or your (presumably slightly older) child might have announced to you they have become (or intend to become) vegan. Or you might even be a grandparent who is concerned about your hippy son-in-law’s insistence that your precious grandkids be brought up eating only lentils and mung beans. Whatever your situation, we aim to give you the answers you seek about children and veganism.
“Should” can be quite a loaded word, of course. Nobody likes being told how to bring up their children. It can be a hard enough job as it is without having people casting aspersions on your parenting style or questioning whether you should allow them a bit of birthday cake on occasion. And, we are not here to judge anyone in terms of the choices they make for their kids. A more accurate question to ask, therefore, might be: is a vegan diet safe and healthy for children and babies?
In this article, we’ll attempt to answer this question by focussing primarily on the nutritional angle. That is, does (or can) a vegan diet provide all the nutrients a growing baby or child needs to be healthy. We’ll look at whether there are any nutrients that kids need but which are particularly hard to get from a vegan diet. And, we’ll seek out evidence that compares a vegan diet with one that contains meat, eggs and dairy and attempt to explain which appears healthier.
Aside from the nutritional information, we’ll also take a brief look at the environmental and ethical arguments for your children becoming vegan. But first, let’s find out what the various authorities and health and nutrition bodies recommend when it comes to what children and babies should eat.
What Should Children Eat & Drink?
Given the amount of information that’s dished out to parents, most people are at least quite aware of what children need to eat and drink… and what they should avoid. But what are the guidelines from the organisations whose job it is to look out for the health of kids or to give nutritional advice in general? Here we are talking about advice about eating to be healthy, not just to survive.
We’ll give you a snapshot of the information provided by the UK Government (through Public Health England), the NHS (through their Eatwell Guide), the British Nutrition Foundation and the British Dietetic Association. Much of the information overlaps and generally reinforces the notion that it is possible for children to obtain all they need to be healthy from a vegan diet… with a bit of careful planning.
Public Health England (The UK Government)
Public Health England is an executive agency of the Department of Health of the UK Government. Its role is to “protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities”. It regularly produces science-based reports and recommendations covering various aspects of health and wellbeing, including the official Government Dietary Requirements (last published in 2016).
This document breaks down the government’s recommendations for children aged from one year to 18 years and for people aged 19 and older. They split the recommendations into various age bands and also by male and female and offer recommendations for energy, macronutrients (such as protein, fat and dietary fibre), and selected vitamins and minerals. We’ll present just a snapshot of the information to give you an idea, but please refer to the document itself to find the data specific to children (or adult) of a particular age and gender. We’ll take a look at some of the main recommendations for males and females aged 4-6, 7-10 and 15-18.
|Fat (g/day) [Less than]||58||54||71||66||97||78|
|Carbohydrate (g/day) [At least]||198||184||242||227||333||267|
|Free sugars (g/day) [Less than]||20||18||24||23||33||27|
|Salt (g/day) [Less than]||3||3||5||5||6||6|
|Dietary fibre (g/day)||15 (4y), 20 (5-6y)||15 (4y), 20 (5-6y)||20||20||30||30|
|Vitamin A (µg/day)||400||400||500||500||700||600|
|Vitamin B12 (mg/day)||0.9||0.9||1||1||1.3||1.1|
|Vitamin C (mg/day)||30||30||30||30||40||40|
|Vitamin D (µg/day)||10||10||10||10||10||10|
As you can see, this gives very specific information about the various nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are required at different ages. But unless you are very familiar with food labels and how nutrition works, it is perhaps not the most user-friendly way to present things to parents.
NHS Eatwell Guide
That is where the NHS Eatwell Guide comes in. Its aim is to make it easy to figure out what to actually feed your kids (and yourself) to maintain or promote a healthy body (and mind, many would argue).
Note that the Eatwell Guide does not apply to children under the age of two. The assumption is that babies will be fed breast or formula milk initially and then they have a separate guide that explains about your baby’s first solid food. It also states that children between the ages of two and five years should “gradually move to eating the same foods” and in the same proportions as the rest of the family based on the Eatwell Guide. It also emphasises giving smaller portions to children and not giving them adult-sized plates or forcing them to finish everything on their plate as this can create bad eating habits.
The Eatwell Guide presents nutritional information in an accessible and clear way and rather than blasting out a load of figures and stats, so it gives general guidance that is easy to understand. For instance, it suggests various principles people should attempt to follow to attain a healthy, balanced diet.
5 a Day
One of the pieces of general nutrition advice that most people have at least heard of. We should consume at least five portions of fruit and veg a day, with one portion usually being around 80g of fresh, canned or frozen fruit or veg or 30g of dried fruit. From a vegan perspective, this is obviously very easy to achieve on a plant-based diet.
Higher Fibre Starchy Foods
As with the 5 a Day, finding enough fibre-rich starchy foods on a vegan diet is no problem as it is mainly available in fruit, veg, whole grains and legumes.
Some Dairy or Dairy Alternatives
Given that the guide specifically states dairy alternatives “such as soya drinks”, there is no reason why anyone actually needs dairy from cows or other animals. As long as you pick a vegan milk alternative that has no added sugar and, ideally, which has been fortified with vitamins and minerals (vitamin D, calcium and iron are common additions), it can be at least as healthy as giving your kids “normal” milk, and probably more so given it is likely to be lower in saturated fat in many cases.
Some Protein Sources
The guide mentions “beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein” but we are very confident that vegans can obtain enough protein without the need for fish, meat or eggs. There are loads of high protein vegan foods, with nuts, seeds, and peas being good options. A simple meal of baked beans on wholemeal toast, for instance, gives kids a surprisingly healthy protein boost too, including all the essential amino acids and a great fibre hit too!
Limited Amount of (Unsaturated) Oils & Spreads
Most of the most popular vegan cooking oil options are naturally significantly lower in saturated fats than those from animals.
The guide suggests people keep well hydrated and to pick healthy drinks – and there’s none more healthy than good, old-fashioned water… which is definitely vegan!
Avoid the Bad Stuff
It suggests eating foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt infrequently and in small quantities… so if you are a fan of the growing number of vegan sweets or delicious vegan chocolate out there, this could be one of the more challenging principles!
Based on the Eatwell Guide, there is nothing they recommend children (and adults) should be eating that cannot be obtained from a vegan diet, with a little planning. And, given that a little planning is also required to obtain all the recommended nutrients, vitamins and minerals from an omnivorous diet anyway, there is very little difference.
The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF)
The British Nutrition Foundation is a registered UK charity that gives science-based information and training about food and nutrition. They have a wealth of useful guidance on their website in relation to nutrition and children, including a specific section on vegetarian and vegan diets.
It suggests that if your child follows a vegetarian or vegan diet “it is important to make sure that the diet is varied so that he or she gets all the nutrients for growth and general health”. They point to various areas of nutrition to which parents should pay particular attention, namely energy, protein, iron, calcium and vitamin B12.
They don’t say that it is not possible to obtain any of these things in sufficient quantities on a vegan diet. Instead, they give examples of “nutrient dense” vegan foods such as avocados, tofu, peanut butter and bananas as good energy sources; wholegrain cereals, beans, lentils and dried fruits as good sources of iron; and fortified soya and other dairy alternatives and fortified cereals as good options to obtain calcium and vitamin B12. They also provide specific information about healthy eating for vegans and vegetarians, which contains plenty of useful tips and guidance.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA)
Dieticians use evidence-based nutritional science to create diets to promote health in people with or without health complications. The BDA is the trade union and professional body representing people who work as dieticians or in nutrition-related fields. In their rather concise Healthy Eating for Children: Food Fact Sheet, the BDA gives guidance in a clear and simple way that is similar to that given by the NHS Eatwell Guide.
It emphasises starchy foods and fruit and vegetable. It also mentions milk and dairy foods but asserts that “non-dairy alternatives to cow’s milk can be given from one year of age. Ensure they are fortified with calcium and unsweetened.” Finally, it suggests “meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein” (it mentions lentils, peas, hummus, tofu and soya mince) should be eaten two to three times a day. Like the Eatwell Guide, the BDA’s advice does not suggest anything that cannot be obtained on a vegan diet with relative ease.
Do Children Need Meat, Fish, Eggs & Dairy?
It may not surprise you to read (given that we are a vegan site!) that we would argue that, no, children do not need meat, fish, eggs or dairy. What they undoubtedly do need are the various nutrients, vitamins and minerals found in meat and dairy products, specifically protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D (although the best source of vitamin D is usually sunlight). You might also add omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to that list, which are readily present in oily fish, among other foods.
So, if your child is vegan or hoping to become vegan, how can you or they (depending on their age and level of responsibility) ensure they get all they need from their food? Well, some of the guidance we’ve linked to above can certainly help. As can the Vegan Health & Fitness section of our site which looks at various vitamins, minerals and nutrients and how to obtain them from a vegan diet. But here we’ll give you a quick overview of the main things that might concern a new vegan from a dietary perspective.
Can Children Get Enough Protein on a Vegan Diet?
Protein is one of the easier nutrients to acquire on a vegan diet, despite the popular vegan myth that suggests otherwise. Indeed, there are plenty of vegan sports stars whose physical prowess would attest to human bodies at the top of their game being perfectly happy with plant protein.
Of course, it is possible that some of those sports stars obtain some of their protein through the many vegan protein powder products that are available. But the quantities of protein required by the average child can be obtained through any number of high protein vegan foods. Here are a few examples (and just for comparison, a typical Aberdeen Angus beef sirloin steak gives around 30g of protein per 100g):
|Food||Protein (g per 100g)|
|Soya Beans (dried, raw)||35.9|
|Whole Earth Smooth Peanut Butter||26.3|
|Peanuts (dry roasted)||25.7|
|Quorn Vegan Pieces||15.3|
|Tesco Meat Free Mince||15.1|
Can Children Get Enough Calcium on a Vegan Diet?
For a long time – partly due to the success of the marketing techniques of the dairy industry (as an aside and one for the trivia fans, the concept of a ploughman’s lunch was invented by the Milk Marketing Board to sell more cheese!) – calcium has been strongly associated with milk. But as we explain in our article on calcium, there are numerous vegan-friendly sources of this essential micronutrient. Many of these are comparable to dairy milk in terms of their calcium content (with fortified almond milk and fortified soya milk being examples), while some sources can be even richer in calcium (for instance, tofu that has been coagulated with calcium).
Aside from milk and dairy alternatives though, other vegan foods that pack a decent calcium punch include sesame seeds (670mg per 100g), poppy seeds* (1438mg per 100g), almonds (240mg per 100g) and even granary bread (209mg per 100g).
Can Children Get Enough Vitamin D on a Vegan Diet?
Vitamin D is a special case when it comes to vitamins because humans can actually make it in our skin when sunlight shines on it. If someone gets enough sunlight (without getting too much, which can be harmful for other reasons) they don’t actually need to consume any vitamin D in their diet at all. Alas, we live in the United Kingdom where rain clouds dwell regularly and where not many people want to expose their limbs to the elements for maybe seven months of any given year.
So, during these months of limited sunlight exposure, there are two options: get your vitamin D through your food, or take vitamin D supplements. Though many vitamin D supplements come from non-vegan sources, there is a growing number that are vegan friendly. Indeed, it is now mainstream medical advice for vegans and non-vegans to take, or at least consider, vitamin D supplements during the winter months or if you do not get sufficient, regular exposure to the sun.
One of the best ways of getting enough vitamin D through a vegan diet is by eating breakfast cereals (though note that not all of these are vegan due to the type of vitamin D they use), vegan milk alternatives or vegan margarine or other spread that has been fortified with the vitamin. The only really natural vegan source of vitamin D is the humble mushroom. Though it is hard to say exactly how much vitamin D is present in mushrooms (as it will depend on how that particular batch has been grown), there is evidence to suggest that the amount of vitamin D in mushrooms increases if you leave them exposed to sunlight.
Ethical & Environmental Reasons
We’ve joined these two together in this section as there is quite a lot of overlap. Though some people choose veganism for ethical reasons and others go vegan for environmental reasons, for many there is a fine line between the two. By definition, a global environmental collapse would lead to the death and suffering of countless animals (including humans!), so whether someone comes at the problem from a purely environmental perspective or they want to reduce suffering in animals, the end goal is the same: reduce the amount of environmental damage we inflict.
When it comes to children, this is particularly pertinent. After all, the current scientific predictions suggest it will be our children and grandchildren that will experience the worst implications of environmental collapse. So, does it not stand to reason that we should attempt to reduce the environmental impact of what we feed our kids?
Okay, sometimes it’s easier said than done to limit the environmental damage caused by having a child (not everyone can forego the convenience of disposable nappies, for instance!). Of course, there are those who suggest that if someone is truly concerned about the environment, or indeed the state of the planet in the future, they perhaps shouldn’t have children at all. But for many, it’s a little too late for that! For others, the ambition that it might be their child that solves the problem of nuclear fusion and provides free green energy for the whole world is just too strong… good luck!
Of course, the longer someone is a vegan, the less of an environmental impact they will have (at least in relation to some aspects of the environment… things like palm oil and habitat destruction for the production of soy complicate matters somewhat). But if they then get a job that requires them to fly around the world multiple times a year (we’re thinking of Lewis Hamilton here!), it is not going to make that much difference.
Ultimately, at some point in their lives, the child will become an adult and make their own dietary choices based on their own moral compass and understanding of the world. But that is not to say they should not be encouraged to think about such matters from a young age, even if you do not want to force your own ideals on them.
Conclusions: Is It Okay for Children to Be Vegans?
As we have shown above, and indeed in various articles on this site, there are no nutrients, vitamins or minerals that the human body requires (adults or children) that cannot be obtained from a vegan diet. Of course, a vegan diet of chips and vegan crisps isn’t going to cut the mustard from a nutritional point of view. But neither would a diet of chips fried in beef dripping and non-vegan crisps. The point is, a healthy diet – whether it contains animals or not – requires a certain amount of planning.
Using the resources mentioned above and other pages on our site, we believe you can provide yourself and your children with a healthy diet that not only ticks all the nutritional boxes, but that is actually healthier than a diet that includes meat and dairy. Indeed, red and processed meats are the foods most strongly and convincingly linked to cancer, so there is a clear argument for avoiding them on health grounds.
A vegan diet containing lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, along with lots of pulses and whole grains is going to be naturally low in fat, packed with vitamins and minerals, and high in fibre. Throw in some nuts and seeds for a boost of protein and fibre, as well as various vitamins and nutrients, and some fortified vegan milk and soya products and there you have it: a well-balanced vegan diet on which your children can truly thrive.