According to reports, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are planning to raise their baby a vegan.
Though the 37-year-old has never confirmed she’s a vegan herself, she reportedly follows a plant-based diet on weekdays. The lifestyle choice is said to have brushed off Harry, who is reportedly now eats less meat and more fruit and veg.
Meghan is by no means the only person experimenting with plant-based diets. There are now thought to be 540,000 vegans in Britain, up from 150,000 a decade ago, and many parents are choosing to raise their babies and children in the same way.
But what are the health implications of bringing up a child as a vegan and is it still possible for them to get the nutrients they need?
While many experts note that a vegan diet can be perfectly healthy for children, some also warn that it must be done properly.
A study of veganism in children at University College London concluded that a lack of nutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and high-quality protein (found in meat and dairy) could lead to malnutrition and “irreversible damage” to their nervous systems, the Daily Mail reports.
According to the NHS babies and young children on a vegetarian or vegan diet can get the energy and most of the nutrients they need to grow and develop from a well-planned varied and balanced diet.
But there are certain things parents might need to keep in mind if they do plan on raising their baby or child as a vegan.
“It’s important to consider the vitamins and nutrients which would typically be provided by animal products, and ensure that all nutritional needs are met, most importantly ensuring your baby’s diet contains enough sources of protein and the nutrients iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D,” says Alice Fortheringham, nutritionist and co-founder of baby food company Piccolo.
“The exact amount of protein a baby needs is dependent on their weight,” Alice continues. “More details can be found in the World Health Organisation and NHS guidelines, but as a general rule babies under 1 year old should be consuming no more than 10g of protein per day.”
Alice says vitamin B12 is crucial to babies’ development and as it is only naturally found in foods of animal origin it is important that vegan children eat fortified foods such as soya products and yeast extract or take supplements which contain the vitamin.
Vegan sources of protein include pulses such as beans, lentils and chickpeas, nuts and seeds, grains and cereals, soya and soya products such as tofu, but it is not recommended to give whole nuts to a child until he or she reaches five due to the risk of choking. Instead, parents should add ground nuts and seeds into recipes or sugar- and salt-free nut and seed butters.
“Vegan infants can get iron from dried fruit such as apricots, figs and prunes. Leafy green vegetables, plus edamame beans, figs and sesame seeds and tahini are a good source of naturally occurring calcium, as well as fortified oat and soya milk,” she adds.
Laura Southern, a nutritional therapist, has put together some tips for parents who are keen to raise their babies and children on a vegan diet.
Seek professional advice
“Humans are omnivores, and as such we tend to thrive on a diet which is a mixture of animal and plant based,” she explains. “If parents decide to raise their babies/children as vegan they should do so under professional supervision.”
Ensure your baby’s nutrient needs are met
B12, iron, calcium and zinc can all be lower in vegan children (B12 is only found in animal products, and iron is much more easily absorbed from meat than veg). “It is key to supplement your baby once they start weaning,” Laura advises. “Check you’re using a ‘multi’ which ha both minerals and vitamins, many baby vitamins don’t contain minerals (iron, zinc etc), and often don’t contain b12 either.”
Protein is key
“Protein is needed for growth, so is obviously critical in babies and children,” Laura says. “Vegan protein sources are nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and soya. As long as there are no allergies babies can eat these foods from weaning (though don’t give nuts and seeds whole – use nut butters or soak and grind into pastes).”
Laura says vegan parents should aim to give children 2-3 different protein sources at each meal, e.g. flax and ground almonds in porridge at breakfast, quinoa and butter beans at lunch, peas and lentils at dinner.
“One of the benefits of a healthy vegan diet is the wide range of plant foods that are consumed,” says Laura. “This is important to encourage in your baby.” Laura suggests trying to include as wide a variety as possible of different plant based foods – each one provides different nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fibre, and feeds our gut bacteria (essential for long term health). “Think colour, texture, cooking methods (though harder for a young baby!) and where they grow (in the ground, above the ground etc),” she adds.
Don’t be stubborn
“There can be babies who thrive on a vegan diet, and I personally weaned my baby vegan for his first few months of eating (I slowly introduced some fish and meat around 8-9 months, and he still prefers veggie meals), however if you feel your baby is not thriving don’t ignore it!!” Laura advises.
“Be aware that some people do need some meat or fish in their diet and that you might have to put some in for their health.”