Can young kids grow and develop if their parents don't allow them to consume any animal products? Two experts weigh in.
Three years after she won our hearts with her starring role in Clueless, Alicia Silverstone embraced a vegan diet—meaning she swore off meat, fish, dairy, and other animal products in favor of plant-based foods only.
She's touted the benefits of veganism ever since, telling People her diet makes her "feel so good, feel so different." She's even choosing to raise her son, Bear Blu, now 6, as a vegan. Silverstone has said that her son enjoys the foods she feeds him. But can a vegan diet provide all of the nutrients a growing child needs?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sets no guideline concerning the right age to begin a vegan diet, but we wanted to take a closer look at the issue—especially in light of recent news reports of babies dying because their parents didn't feed the properly (such as that of a 7-month-old given only plant-based foods and quinoa milk). So we spoke with nutritionist and pediatrician to find out.
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According to Lauren Blake, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, kids on vegan diets can do just fine, and going vegan won't impede their growth. True, crucial nutrients such as calcium, iron, protein, and B vitamins can be harder to obtain when meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are off limits. But many plant foods contain these—for example, beans are high in protein, and leafy greens like spinach contain calcium and iron, Blake says.
In fact, vegan kids typically build better lifelong eating habits than their non-vegan counterparts, she says. "Children on vegan diets tend to have higher fiber intake because they eat more fruits and vegetables, and lower cholesterol, saturated fat, and total fat levels," she says. "Research shows children who are vegetarian or vegan are leaner overall, too."
Pediatrician Tanya Altman, MD, executive board member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of What to Feed Your Baby, agrees that kids can be healthy if they eat vegan. But she too emphasizes that it can be extremely challenging for parents and requires planning and regular doctor's visits to make sure a child is developing correctly.
"We do see kids who aren't growing properly when parents limit certain things in a child's diet," says Dr. Altman. "It's commonly seen in vegan families and we sometimes need to intervene. If they work with a pediatrician or registered dietitian, it should be fine."
Vegan children are often deficient in vitamins B12 and D, as well as the minerals calcium, iron, and zinc, says Dr. Altman. These are typically found in animal sources, but it's possible to get these from plant food as well—such as nuts or nut butter, lentils, and whole wheat bread, she says.
One animal food that's more challenging to swap out for a plant version is milk. Cow's milk contains 8 to 10 grams of protein per serving while alternatives like almond milk only contain 1 gram, says Dr. Altman. (A serving of soy milk has 7 grams of protein.) She suggests vegans use Ripple, a pea-protein milk, which she says provides ample protein. But vegan parents should also keep in mind the results of new research, which found that children who drink cow's milk and eat eggs had healthier growth rates than kids who did not.
As for the right age for a child to go vegan, there isn't one; Dr. Altman says kids can start a vegan solid-food diet at 6 months old, before which they should be exclusively breastfed or given soy milk formula. "My philosophy is, what you feed babies is what they always want to eat, so introducing lentils, beans, avocado, or peanut butter at an early age will get them used to the diet."