kid's zone  

by Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.

Many members of The Vegetarian Resource Group are glowing testimony to the fact that vegan children can be healthy, grow normally, be extremely active, and (we think) smarter than average. Of course it takes time and thought to feed vegan children. Shouldn't feeding of any child require time and thought? After all, the years from birth to adolescence are the years when eating habits are set, when growth rate is high, and to a large extent, when the size of stores of essential nutrients such as calcium and iron are determined.

The earliest food for a vegan baby is ideally breast milk. Many benefits to the infant are conveyed by breast feeding including some enhancement of the immune system, protection against infection, and reduced risk of allergies. In addition, breast milk was designed for baby humans and quite probably contains substances needed by growing infants which are not even known to be essential and are not included in infant formulas.

Many books on infant care have sections on techniques and timing of breast feeding, and we suggest that you refer to one of these for more information. Be forewarned that the books may discourage vegetarianism. They are wrong. With a little attention to detail, vegetarianism and breast feeding are a good combination. In fact, several reports show that milk of vegetarian women is lower in pesticides than the milk of women eating typical American diets (1,2).

If you choose to breast feed, be sure to see the preceding section on lactation to make sure that your milk is adequate for your child. Be especially careful that you are getting enough vitamin B-12. If your diet does not contain reliable sources of vitamin B-12, your breastfed infants should receive supplements of 0.4-0.5 micrograms of vitamin B-12 daily.

See that your infant receives at least 30 minutes of sunlight exposure per week if wearing only a diaper or 2 hours per week fully clothed without a hat to maintain normal vitamin D levels (3). Dark-skinned infants require greater sunshine exposure. If sunlight exposure is limited, due to factors like a cloudy climate, winter, or being dark-skinned, infants who are solely breastfed should receive vitamin D supplements of at least 5 micrograms (200 IU) per day (4). Vitamin D deficiency leads to rickets (soft, improperly mineralized bones). Human milk contains only very low levels of vitamin D.

The iron content of breast milk is generally low, no matter how good the mother's diet is. The iron which is in breast milk is readily absorbed by the infant, however. The iron in breast milk is adequate for the first 4 to 6 months or longer. Recommendations call for use of iron supplements (1 mg/kg/day) beginning at 4-6 months to insure adequate iron intake. Breast fed infants may require supplemental fluoride after 6 months if water intake is low and if supplements are prescribed by a dentist or pediatrician.

If for any reason you choose not to breast feed or if you are using formula to supplement breast feeding, there are several soy-based formulas available. These products support normal infant growth and development (5). Soy-based formulas are used by vegan families as the best option when breast feeding is not possible. At this time all soy formulas contain vitamin D derived from lanolin (sheep's wool). Some soy-based formulas (such as Parent's Choice ® and some store brands) may contain animal- derived fats so check the ingredient label. Soy formulas are used exclusively for the first six months. Iron supplements may be indicated at 4-6 months if the formula is not fortified with iron.

Soy milk, rice milk, and homemade formulas should not be used to replace breast milk or commercial infant formula during the first year. These foods do not contain the proper ratio of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, nor do they have enough of many vitamins and minerals to be used as a significant part of the diet in the first year.

Supplemental food (food besides breast milk and formula) can be started at different times in different children depending on the child's rate of growth and stage of development but are usually begun somewhere in the middle of the first year. Some signs of the time to start introducing solid foods are: the ability to sit unsupported, disappearance of the tongue extrusion reflex, increased interest in foods others are eating, and an ability to pick up food and put it in the mouth.

Introduce one new food at a time so that any source of allergies can be later identified. Many people use iron-fortified infant rice cereal as the first food. This is a good choice as it is a good source of iron and rice cereal is least likely to cause an allergic response. Cereal can be mixed with expressed breast milk or soy formula so the consistency is fairly thin. Formula or breast milk feedings should continue as usual. Start with one cereal feeding daily and work up to 2 meals daily or 1/3 to 1/2 cup. Oats, barley, corn, and other grains can be ground in a blender and then cooked until very soft and smooth. These cereals can be introduced one at a time. However, they do not contain much iron, so iron supplements should be continued.

When cereals are well accepted, fruit, fruit juice, and vegetables can be introduced. Fruits and vegetables should be well mashed or puréed. Mashed banana is one food that many infants especially enjoy. Other fruits include mashed avocado, applesauce, and puréed canned peaches or pears. Citrus fruits and juices are common allergens and should not be introduced until the first birthday. Mild vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, peas, sweet potatoes, and green beans should be cooked well and mashed. There is no need to add spices, sugar, or salt to cereals, fruits, and vegetables. Grain foods such as soft, cooked pasta or rice, soft breads, dry cereals, and crackers can be introduced as the baby becomes more adept at chewing. By age 7-8 months, good sources of protein can be introduced. These include well-mashed cooked dried beans, mashed tofu, and, soy yogurt. Children should progress from mashed or pureed foods to pieces of soft food. Smooth nut and seed butters spread on bread or crackers can be introduced after the first birthday.

Many parents choose to use commercially prepared baby foods. There are products available for vegan infants. Careful label reading is recommended. Since commercial products contain limited selections for the older vegan infant, many parents opt to prepare their own baby foods. Foods should be well washed, cooked thoroughly, and blended or mashed to appropriate consistency. Home-prepared foods can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days or frozen in small quantities for later use.

By 10-12 months, most children will be eating at least the amounts of foods shown in Table 17.

Certainly it makes sense for vegans to continue breast feeding for a year or longer, if possible, because breast milk is a rich source of nutrients. Vegan infants should be weaned to a fortified soy milk containing calcium, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D. Low-fat or non-fat soy milks should not be used before age 2. Rice milks are not recommended as a primary beverage for infants and toddlers as they are quite low in protein and energy.

Several studies have been reported showing that the growth of vegan children is slower than that of non-vegans (see 6-8). Studies such as these are often cited as evidence that vegan diets are inherently unhealthy. However, when the studies are examined more closely, we find that they are often based on vegans who have very low calorie or very limited diets (only fruit and nuts for example). In addition, many vegan infants are breast fed. Compared to formula-fed infants, breast-fed infants generally gain weight at about the same rate for the first 2-3 months and then gain weight less rapidly from 3 to 12 months (11). This means by 12 months, breast fed infants will tend to be leaner than formula-fed infants. New growth charts are being developed which will be based on the growth of breast-fed infants.

An additional question that must be asked is, "What is a normal growth rate?" Growth rate is assessed by comparing changes in a child's height, weight, and head circumference to rates of growth that have been established by measuring large numbers of apparently healthy US children. There is no one ideal rate of growth. Instead, height, weight, and head circumference are reported in percentiles. If your child's height is at the 50th percentile, this means that 50% of children of that age are taller and 50% are shorter. Similarly, a weight at the 25th percentile means 25% of children weigh less and 75% weigh more.

A Guide to Good Health and Family Harmony
By Joanne Stepaniak, M.S.Ed., and Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D.

When parents choose a vegetarian lifestyle for their child, it can set family fingers wagging in dietary disapproval. It's no easier on steak-loving parents when Junior announces he's sworn off meat. With the strategies in Raising Vegetarian Children, parents can ease family tensions and learn to accommodate the nutritional and emotional needs of their vegetarian offspring.

It includes a detailed explanation of the Vegetarian Food Pyramid and its vitamin- and protein-rich foods, allays concerns over dietary gaps, and is packed with recipes that will please any growing vegetarian, from infant to teenager.

For some people vegetarianism is more than just a dietary decision; its a lifestyle choice. But establishing that lifestyle within the bounds of ever-changing family dynamics can be a challenge. Perhaps you're a new parent concerned about imposing your vegetarian lifestyle on your baby, or you may be the head of a meat-eating family confused by your child's recent decision to become a vegetarian. With the compassionate, authoritative advice in Raising Vegetarian Children, every parent--regardless of his or her dietary preference--will discover how to achieve healthy harmony in a vegetarian household.

With nutrient-rich recipes for everything from breads to spreads, enticing entrées to delectable desserts, you'll meet and even exceed your child's dietary requirements. These veggie meals will smooth an infants transition to solid foods or soothe the most finicky teen palate. In addition to nutritional needs, you'll learn to address the social and emotional aspects of vegetarianism, including:

* Helping your child cope with pressure to conform to a standard diet

* Ensuring that school officials, caregivers, and relatives abide by your child's dietary wishes

* Dining out in nonvegetarian restaurants and celebrating traditional, meat-eating holidays

A must-have for anyone who understands that how we feed our children says a lot about who they will become.

~John Robbins, author of the bestsellers Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution

Ultimate guide for fit, healthy families . . . required reading for every parent--whether vegetarian or not!
~Jay Gordon, M.D., FAAP, pediatrician and author of Good Food Today, Great Kids Tomorrow

Joanne Stepaniak, M.S. Ed., is the author of The Vegan Sourcebook, Being Vegan, and nine vegan cookbooks.

Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian and the coauthor of Becoming Vegetarian, Cooking Vegetarian, and Becoming Vegan.

helpful hints


2002 Black Vegeterian Society