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The Vegan Baby
What does vegan mean?
Vegans don’t eat meat, fish, eggs or milk – nothing that was once part of an animal or comes from an animal. Some vegans do eat honey, but most do not. Many vegans also avoid animal products (such as leather or wool) when buying clothing, footwear and other products.
Of all the mainstream special diets, veganism will get the most raised eyebrows from family, friends and even some doctors if parents choose this diet for their children. While there have been cases of vegan babies who have gotten seriously ill or died because of inadequate nutrition, parents shouldn’t be discouraged from raising their kids vegan as long as they’re aware of what their children need nutritionally for normal growth and development. Dreena Burton is a vegan cookbook author and a mom of three “weegan” girls. She used a baby-led approach to starting solids with her daughters and found it worked very well. “My naturopath gave us a schedule for starting solids that we modified for our plant-based diet,” says Burton. “In short, we introduced certain fruits and veggies first, followed by gluten-free grains and more fruit and veg, then legumes and grains [with gluten] as well as seeds, wheat and peanuts.” People questioned her about the appropriateness of vegan eating for babies. She and her husband had already been vegan for about five years when they had their first child, and some asked whether they were going to raise their children vegan, too. “I thought that was interesting because I chose a vegan diet for myself after researching and experiencing the health benefits of eating this way. Of course I would want to give our children those same health benefits!”
While Burton’s family and friends eventually understood this was a life choice, not a phase – in fact, one of her friends, along with her three children, later became vegan – she did face opposition from some health professionals. “There were a couple of times after doctor visits that I had a good cry in the car on the drive home. That was difficult, because intellectually and spiritually I knew I was doing the right thing – but when a health professional asks challenging questions, it is almost impossible not to feel emotional. I didn’t have any support with an online community or other vegan parenting groups or mentors at the time. So every time I felt insecure, I would revisit my research.”
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Her girls ate the whole foods that she and her husband ate. Burton recalls that her daughters’ favorite foods when they were infants included sweet potatoes, peas, homemade pancakes, beans, corn, cooked pasta, pieces of tofu, fruits (like melons, berries and bananas), potatoes and homemade baked goods.
Burton worried at times that her toddlers weren’t eating enough “dense” or “heavy” foods. “They just loved fruits and for some time would always [choose] fruit over breads or pasta or potatoes, or calorically dense foods like nut butters.” Since the girls were active and healthy and her doctor was happy with their growth, she didn’t press them to change their eating habits. As they got older, they added more of the other foods.
For Burton, one positive outcome of their vegan diet was that she never had any concerns about constipation. “In fact, I was surprised at how often they pooped! Many of my friends really struggled with constipation with their young children who were eating meat and dairy, but it was never an issue for us,” Burton says. Today, she feels that raising her children vegan is one of the greatest gifts she and her husband have given them.
Being vegan is not without its dietary challenges, and parents of vegan babies may have some specific concerns about nutrition, namely, ensuring their children get enough vitamin B12, iron, zinc, protein and fats.
Getting Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12, which is essential for brain development and other vital functions, is not found in vegan foods (unless they are fortified with it, as some brands of nutritional yeast are). If the baby is being breastfed, he will get enough B12 as long as the breastfeeding mother’s levels are good. Once solid foods start to significantly replace breast milk (typically at around 9 or 10 months, depending on the baby), a source of B12 is essential. If you are giving your baby soy formula, vitamin B12 is normally included in the formula.
If you are relying on fortified foods and on the amount your baby gets from breast milk, you should talk to your doctor about having the baby’s blood levels tested. Vitamin B12 is essential – babies have died because they were not getting enough. It’s important to have a plan to make sure this nutrient is included in your baby’s diet.
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There are several ways to give your baby B12: injections, sprays, fortified foods, vitamin strips that dissolve in the baby’s mouth or vitamin pills (one type dissolves in the mouth and a different type can be crushed and added to the baby’s food). Which is the best for your vegan baby? You may have to try more than one approach and see what works. Some are more costly than others – the spray, for example, is much more expensive than the pills.
Does giving the baby a spray, a vitamin strip or a pill violate the principles of baby-led weaning? If you feel strongly that the baby should be able to make decisions about what he eats or doesn’t eat, and he’s not choosing the fast-dissolving B12 pill you put on his plate, perhaps getting the injections would work better for you and your baby. Maybe let him watch you take your pill and then see if he picks up his.
There is no need to worry about your baby getting too much B12 as his body will just flush out the extra.
Getting Iron and Zinc
Even though vegans don’t eat red meat or liver (the foods most people associate with iron), research has found that vegans are no more likely to be iron-deficient than those who eat meat. Iron can be found in many foods, especially in dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, kale and bok choy), legumes (such as lentils, black beans and soybeans) and whole grains (such as oatmeal and cream of wheat).
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Iron from plants is a bit harder for the body to absorb than iron from meats, but you can increase the amount that your baby’s body absorbs by serving high-iron foods with something that contains vitamin C. You don’t need to add a lot – just drizzling some orange or lemon juice on top will help. If you’re concerned that your baby’s iron is low, you can bake and offer your baby squares or mini muffins made with iron-fortified infant cereals or cook with cast-iron pans.
Zinc is another mineral that is harder to get when not eating animal-sourced foods, but it is generally found in the same foods that have iron in them. So if you are offering your baby plenty of iron-containing foods, you’re probably providing plenty of zinc as well.
While the levels of iron in human milk are fairly low, the iron is very readily absorbed. If you have opted for soy formula, it should be fortified with zinc and iron.
Vegan-Friendly Sources of Zinc
- Wild rice and whole grains
- Cooked lentils and beans
- Nuts and nut butters
Most vegans are tired of being asked where they get their protein. Parents who are raising vegan babies feel much the same way.
Many foods contain protein. There is protein in grains and vegetables and substantial amounts in vegan-friendly foods, such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, beans, lentils, nuts, nut butters, seeds, quinoa and wheat. It’s fairly straightforward to incorporate most of these into the meals you offer your baby. Tofu, for example, is an easy texture for babies to manage and will absorb the flavor of any sauce that it’s cooked in. You can crumble extra-firm tofu with your fingers if you think it’s too firm for your baby. Mashed cooked beans are easy for a baby to pick up (and the mashing also reduces the risk of the baby choking). Seitan can be cooked in little nuggets that the baby can pick up and chew.
Many people think of calcium as something that comes from dairy products, but some of the best sources are actually plant based. Almond butter, kale, bok choy and tofu are a few good vegan sources of calcium.
Cover courtesy of Firefly Books
Getting Enough Fats
It’s important for babies to get enough fats in their diet to promote brain development and normal growth during this stage. If you’re focused on keeping your diet low in fat, you may need to make modifications to the foods you offer your baby. Some options for healthy, higher-fat foods include avocado, coconut milk, nut and seed butters and vegan cheese. It’s a good idea to include one or more of these in every meal you offer your baby.
Baby-Led Weaning: The (Not-So) Revolutionary Way to Start Solids and Make a Happy Eater excerpted with permission from Firefly Books. Copyright © 2018 Firefly Books Ltd. / Text Copyright © Teresa Pitman 2018