Today, I’m answering my first Ask Anna reader-submitted question. (!!!)
As a reminder, Ask Anna is a way for me to address a question you may have, but not just on a personal, experience- or opinion-based level. I’ll definitely weigh in, but I’ll also pull in other resources to answer the question.
Okay, ready for the VERY FIRST Ask Anna?:
Question: Do you feed Maggie a vegan diet? If not, can you talk about the approach you and Kevin take when it comes to her diet?
I love this question, and am going to use it as an opportunity to speak to recommendations and thoughts around feeding children a vegan or vegetarian diet, as well as to address the question around what we’re choosing to do at our house specifically.
Do we feed Maggie a vegan diet? No, we don’t.
That said, there’s no tension between Kevin and me on that issue. We mainly feed Maggie the foods we eat. When I’m in charge of Maggie’s meals, she tends to eat pretty vegan (more vegetarian than vegan, since she has cow’s milk and cheese daily), and Kevin often gives her things like eggs or chicken.
I’m relatively new to being vegan, and I also am a big believer in not pushing this lifestyle on others (although I’ll happily talk about why I made this choice for myself and why I love it so much!). With that in mind, I think my take is to let Maggie make the call for herself when she gets old enough to start being more discerning about the food she’s eating.
I want her to feel good and healthy — for her to not have digestive issues, etc. Right now, it seems like she does feel good, and she’s doing just fine on an omnivorous diet. (I do give her almond milk often, in addition to cow’s milk, because I want her to get used to the taste so she can be flexible there as she gets older.)
The biggest priority Kevin and I have for Maggie’s diet is variety. We want her to experience tons of flavors and textures when it comes to food, and to learn to be an adventurous eater. We also want her to be a healthy eater, and to eat as many fresh, whole foods as possible. Though Kevin and I subscribe to different styles of eating (I’m vegan and he’s omnivorous), we actually overlap a ton on what we consume. We both eat LOTS of produce, and often our meals are very similar but Kevin’s will have, say, chicken on his. We pay close attention to the animal products we buy for Kevin and Maggie so they’re as healthy as possible, choosing things like organic milk and free-range eggs. (We also buy organic and local produce as often as we can!)
Okay, so that’s the choice we’ve made for OUR child. What about recommendations around vegan diets for children in general?
Well, let’s start with the preeminent experts when it comes to nutrition for kiddos: the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American Academy of Pediatrics both agree that a well-planned (well-balanced) vegetarian or vegan diet is healthy for infants and toddlers. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ take is that they’re healthy ways of eating for ANY life stage, “including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
“Well-balanced” is important for ANY diet, whether you’re choosing to raise your child as an omnivore or a vegetarian or vegan. Make sure your child is exposed to a variety of nutrients, and for a vegan or vegetarian diet it’s helpful to pay special attention to:
- Vitamin B12: This can come from milk products or eggs for vegetarians, or through B12-fortified foods like soy milk, cereals, or nutritional yeast.
- Vitamin D: Soy milk is a great source. (And just to dispel some of the soy worry: “Soy is low in fat, has no cholesterol, and is packed with fiber,” says Cynthia Sass, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “It’s especially good if it replaces protein that’s high in saturated fat, like red meat.” Plus, a new study suggests that girls who eat soy-based foods may have a reduced risk of breast cancer later on.)
- Calcium: Calcium isn’t just in milk. (After all, where do you think the calcium in cow’s milk comes from? It’s from the grass cows eat!) Good sources of calcium for vegans include grains, beans, and green veggies like spinach or broccoli. (Maggie eats all those foods regularly!)
- Iron: Good sources of iron include tofu and quinoa (both very toddler friendly!).
- Protein: Go-tos are beans and nuts/nut butters, but other great options are hemp (I put hemp hearts in Maggie’s smoothies — and mine!), tempeh, and sprouted grain bread.
But what about milk? More and more, it’s becoming evident that milk of any kind — cow or plant — isn’t necessary for the healthy development of a child after 12 months. Children can get everything they need from foods, and so whether a child is supplementing that food with cow’s milk or a plant-based milk, if they’re getting a balanced diet of food they’ll be just fine. In a 2015 Live Science article, Amy Lanou, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, was quoted as saying: “Do kids really need milk? No, of course they don’t,” Most people in the world do not drink milk after they are weaned from breast milk, and yet still get adequate nutrition, she added.
Moral of the story: I absolutely believe feeding a child a vegan diet is a healthy thing to do. More than anything, I think exposing children to as many healthy, whole foods — and as much variety within those healthy, whole foods — as possible should be your top priority to help set your child up for healthy eating habits throughout his or her life.
Do you have a question you’d like me to dig into? Go ahead — ask away!