With some careful menu planning, children and even infants raised as complete vegetarians (vegans) can get all the nutrients they need for good health, according to two reports in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Because vegans avoid all animal products, they are at risk for getting too little calcium, zinc, iron and vitamin B12, nutrients concentrated in meat and dairy products. But according to the reports, a well-rounded vegan diet, sometimes supplemented with certain nutrients like B12 and zinc, can provide children with all their nutrition needs. And vegan children typically eat less fat and cholesterol and more fruits and vegetables than other children do.
Parents need to ensure their vegan children are getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals critical for growth and development. For example, vitamin B12, which is essential in children's neurological development, exists only in animal products. However, breakfast cereals, soy beverages, nutritional yeast and vegetarian "meats" are often fortified with B12, and are important sources of the vitamin for vegans.
The researchers also advise that breast-fed infants of vegan mothers get a regular supplement of vitamin B12, since maternal stores of the vitamin may be low. Infant soy formulas are fortified with vitamin B12 and other nutrients, but regular soymilk-like regular cow's milk--is inappropriate for babies younger than one year. As with all infants, an iron-fortified cereal is a good choice as a first solid food, the report indicates. By age 7 to 8 months, vegan protein sources that can be introduced include pureed cooked beans, well-mashed tofu and soy yogurt.
Parents should also be careful about their vegan children's supply of zinc, calcium, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and, if sun exposure is inadequate, vitamin D. Key sources of zinc include fortified cereals and certain nuts and beans such as lentils, according to the authors. Calcium-rich vegan foods include fortified tofu, soymilk and orange juice, as well as leafy greens and certain beans. As for iron, good sources include beans, fortified cereals and grains, and dried apricots and raisins.
Some nutrients such as iron and zinc, are not absorbed as well when they come from plant sources. Parents may want to consider zinc supplements and be sure to give their children foods that promote iron absorption such as foods rich in vitamin C.
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