I have written about the nutritional requirements for adult vegans and vegetarians before. I have not however written about the nutritional requirements for vegan children and toddlers. It is high time that I write such an article and here it is.
Figuring out the requirements for children who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet is not especially hard when you have at hand the nutritional requirements which adult vegans should follow. But you might not have that info at hand so I hope this guide will be a complete and accurate representation of the nutritional needs of toddlers and children who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
My son was raised vegan from birth and so I understand that concerns and worries that many parents of vegan or vegetarian children might feel.
This is especially true if you as a parent are not vegan or vegetarian yourself. It is hard to understand the reasons for your child’s dietary choice but perhaps more so, you feel ill informed as to how your child might best meet their energy and other requirements from such a diet.
Do not fear. I have the answers and the solutions for you so that you can help your child make the right choices for their health as well as for the planet and for the animals when they choose to eat like a vegan.
Perhaps the best way to approach the dietary needs of vegan children and toddlers is to debunk myths.
Myth #1: A vegan diet can’t provide sufficient protein for children and toddlers
The truth is that so long as your child is eating sufficient calories for their needs there should be no concern about adequate protein intake.
The only time for concern is if your child decides to become exceptionally picky. But the concern here is not even related to veganism. Any type of mono food diet is going to lack some nutrients.
Of course children can get picky and go through phases where they struggle with their parents over food. This is really a power struggle and children are trying to define their own individuality and spread their wings. However, if your child will only eat one or two foods for more than a couple of weeks you might want to have her visit both your family doctor as well as a counsellor as their could be a variety of both psychological as well as physiological issues at play.
But let’s get back to the focus of this myth which is about inadequate protein obtainable from a plant based diet.
The Institutes of Medicine has come up with a great albeit quite dry and scientific report that determined the nutritional needs of all of us including parents and children. The Baylor College of Medicine has done a good job of distilling the information into an easier to use format.
I can do even better. As far as protein is concerned toddlers from age 2 to 3 are advised to get 13 grams of protein per day. Put another way, this age group should aim for 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Children, both male and female in the age group of 4 to 8 are advised to aim for 19 grams of protein per day. You can go by weight in which case the recommended intake for this age group is 0.95 grams per kilogram per day.
Children aged 9 to 13 should get 34 grams of protein per day which is also recommended at 0.95 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. This is for both boys and girls.
When we get to teenagers we need to differentiate between the needs of girls and boys when it comes to dietary requirements for their nutrients.
Girls aged 14 to 18 should aim for 46 grams of protein per day or 0.85 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Boys aged 14 to 18 are advised to seek 54 grams of protein per day or 0.85 grams per kilogram of body weight.
A quick and easy way to convert your son or daughter’s weight from pounds which is usually how most of us weigh ourselves is to multiply the weight in pounds by 0.45. This will be accurate within 1%. So a 150 pound boy is 67.5 kilos (150 x 0.45)
Let’s take a quick look at a sample menu to see exactly how easy it is for a vegan teenager to get sufficient protein from a vegan diet.
Vincent the vegan eats the following over the course of one day. The numbers in parentheses are the grams of protein for the food in question.
Breakfast consists of 1 cup of oatmeal (6) with 1 cup of soy milk (7) and 1 bagel (9).
For lunch Vince eats 2 slices of whole wheat bread (5) and 1 cup of vegetarian baked beans (12).
Dinner consists of 5 ounces firm tofu (11), 1 cup cooked broccoli (4), 1 cup cooked brown rice (5) and 2 tablespoons of almonds (4).
As a snack Vince also eats 6 crackers (2) smeared with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (8).
The grand total in grams of protein that Vince has eaten is 73 grams. More than adequate for even a 175 pound teenage boy. And a young teenaged man of 175 pounds will need to eat more calories than the above diet suggested which is only about 2,000 calories.
So there is absolutely no need to worry about the amount of protein in the vegan diet for children and toddlers.
Myth #2: A vegan diet won’t provide enough calories
This is untrue as well. Our calorie needs are relatively modest unless we are working hard physical labour or we’re training all day as elite athletes. This is why most of us are fat in North America, we’re eating way too many calories.
So there is never a problem so long as we live in places of abundance where we will ever be without enough food to eat.
Perhaps the problem for most vegans and for everyone really is choosing good quality foods. The more unprocessed and whole the foods are the better they are for us. Put another way, the closer we eat to the source the more nourishment and vitamins, minerals, fiber and good fats we get.
I will add one caveat here. If your teenage son or daughter is adamant about following a raw vegan diet then I urge you to encourage them to think better of it. There are a couple of problems with raw vegan diets. The first is that they can provide inadequate number of calories if the focus is on veggies alone. In combination with fruits, you can oftentimes meet your caloric needs.
The second problem with raw vegan diets is that they are often too high in fat if they meet your calorie needs. Folks eat too much avocado and nuts of all sorts on a raw vegan diet. Oftentimes calories from fat can approach 50% which is way too much.
But that is an article for another day. Let’s first get an idea of the amount of calories needed for toddlers and children.
Toddlers or those children of both sexes aged 2 to 3 require approximately 1,000 to 1,400 calories. Children of both sexes aged 4 to 8 require between 1,400 and 1,600 calories.
Girls aged 9 to 13 require 1,600 to 2,000 calories and boys of the same age require around 1,800 to 2,200 calories.
For girls of ages 14 to 18 2,000 calories is the goal and boys should go for 2,200 to 2,400 calories.
The key for making sure you get your vitamins and minerals on a vegan diet, like with any diet really especially the water soluble vitamins is to make sure that you’re eating a wide variety of vegetables, salad greens, beans, fruits and grains. For growing children, a couple of handful of nuts can be very satisfying and help them meet their calorie requirements easily.
Myth#3: A vegan diet cannot provide all necessary minerals and vitamins
There is one small kernel of truth to this myth. Vegans MUST SUPPLEMENT with vitamin B12 on a daily or weekly basis. It is easy to do with a vitamin B12 supplement that costs just pennies a day.
Vitamin B12 is actually produced by bacteria and not by plants or animals but that is also a discussion for another day.
A couple of other nutrients that might be of issue for vegans and not just vegans but also children of all dietary stripes is vitamin D and calcium. Vitamin D is really a hormone but most of us do not produce enough because we do not get sufficient sunlight during the winter months. Vitamin D is an important part of bone health and so it is advisable to take 1,000 IU per day for vegan children and others. Please be aware that you are looking for vitamin D2 which is vegan and not vitamin D3 which comes from fish bones.
To obtain the recommended amount of calcium for children both boys and girls aged 9 to 18 – 1,300 mg – can be difficult with diet alone. A supplement can help as can drinking 3 or so cups of fortified soy milk per day.
It is my opinion that the amount of calcium needed by the human body is greatly exaggerated by up to 3 times the real amount thanks to the lobbying efforts of the dairy industry. Under no circumstances should children be required to drink or consume dairy products in order to obtain calcium. If you are concerned about your child’s calcium intake let them drink Silk fortified soy milk or take a calcium supplement.
The calcium supplement of choice should be either calcium citrate or calcium carbonate. Oyster shells and bone meal are not vegan and should not be taken. Oyster shells, bone meal and dolomite should not be taken because they can also contain large amounts of toxic metals.
Lastly, I recommend that vegan children as well as adults take a daily supplement of DHA and/or EPA from algae. This is the very same valuable omega 3s that most folks get from fish. Aim for 200 mg of DHA per day from a vegan DHA supplement.
If you follow the guidelines above you will be astonished at the vibrant health your vegan toddler and child will experience. In fact you might become vegan yourself!
If you are still worried about a picky eater, you can supplement with a daily multivitamin for your child. I suggest a daily vegan multivitamin and mineral with iron for both boys and girls. However, adult men should not supplement with added iron unless they have verifiable iron deficiency anemia.
As always, it is a good idea to consult with your doctor about any concerns you have related to your child’s diet. A dietician can offer invaluable support and help too.