The NHS Start for Life website has added information about vegan and vegetarian babies.
Nutritionists and dietitians have raised concerns about the health implications of vegan diets for babies following the publication of the NHS’s vegan infant nutrition guide.
The NHS Start for Life website, which provides guidance for new parents, has added a new section to cater to parents wanting to raise their baby vegan or vegetarian.
The guide indicates that infants on a vegan diet may require vitamin B12 supplementation and advises that parents should introduce baby plant-based drinks like soya, oat, and almond milk after the age of one if the drinks are unsweetened and fortified with calcium.
However, according to the NHS, cows’ milk and dairy foods are still good sources of nutrients, so parents should not exclude them from a child’s diet without consulting a GP or dietitian.
‘Babies or young children can be fussy eaters ‘
Duane Mellor is a registered dietitian and lead for nutrition and evidence-based medicine at Aston University. She said: “If a baby or toddler does not have enough energy and protein, this can affect their growth.
“If their diet is low in iodine, or they become iron-deficient, it can affect their brain development and even reduce their intellectual capacity.
“If their diet is low in B12, it can not only lead to anaemia but also impact their nerve development.”
Dr Carrie Ruxton, a child nutrition expert added: “Adults on vegan diets have to ensure they mix up their protein sources, for example eating plenty of beans, lentils and wheat, but this may be harder for babies or young children to achieve since they can be fussy eaters.”
Planning is key
This isn’t the first time naysayers have questioned whether a vegan diet is appropriate for babies or children. Moreover, a few studies such as the one conducted last year led by University College London indicated that children on vegan diets were on average three centimetres (1.2 inches) shorter, suggesting they were growing more slowly, or potentially could be smaller as adults.
The study looked at 187 vegan, vegetarian, and meat- and dairy-eating children aged five to 10 years old.
The vegan kids also had a lower bone mineral content, although they also had less body fat and lower levels of bad cholesterol.
Still, the general consensus of all large health bodies is that well-planned plant-based diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including infancy.
Bahee Van de Bor, a former paediatric dietitian at Great Ormond Street, who now runs the company UK Kids Nutrition, weighed in her opinion. She said: “If you plan plant-based diets carefully, by including a good ratio of carbohydrate foods and fats from vegetable oils, nut butters, avocado and other higher energy foods like hummus, you can meet a baby’s daily energy requirements.
“But without careful planning for total energy and nutrient requirements, there can be gaps in nutrition which can compromise growth and increase risk of nutrient deficiencies.
“Parents should not ignore the advice to use dietary supplements for calcium, vitamin D, B12 and iodine, and include foods containing Omega-3, to make a vegan diet safe from birth.
“A baby’s brain grows rapidly in the early years, so adequate nutrition is crucial to support this early brain development.”
Chantal Tomlinson is a dietitian at the Vegan Society. She said: “If parents do their research, and plan carefully, they can provide a totally plant-based diet with appropriate fortified foods and supplements which contains all the essential nutrients needed for growth and development.
“There are many plant-based foods rich in protein, iron, and zinc, such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and tofu, and iron absorption can be boosted by including a rich source of vitamin C in each meal, such as broccoli, cabbage or mango.”
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