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Growing a Healthy Child as a Vegetarian: From Pregnancy, Baby & Beyond


What a parent should know about ensuring a vegetarian baby is healthy

I was a vegetarian, and for some years a vegan (strict vegetarian), during my early adult life. I chose this path for a mixture of health, environmental, and ethical reasons. But I do not recommend this for the preconception, pregnancy, and postpartum years. I’m not knocking the power of a plant-based diet. Indeed, I have known and read about people recovering from very serious diseases through radical plant-based diets. Yet, for most of us, the research (and every nutritionist and doctor that I interviewed for this book) suggests that the healthiest diets for growing babies are those that are based primarily on the consumption of lots of fresh, organic vegetables, with a good mix of organic whole grains, fruits, fats, and animal products. Pregnancy and early childhood are a time for growing (not fasting, detoxifying, or dieting.) Learn more about detoxifying and what to do and not to do during the family-growing time here.

If your religious beliefs or ethics require you to be vegetarian, then that is the right choice for you, although I do encourage you to seek guidance in ensuring you and your child are getting enough amino acids, calcium, iron, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and good fats in general.

If not, then I urge you to consider including small amounts of animal protein, especially bone broth and fish oil, into your diet. Make sure they are from sources as happy, healthy, and free-ranging as you, yourself, want to be. Learn how to Read Labels and Organic-ize Your Diet.

Here is what you need to know if you are contemplating having a vegetarian baby

It can take extra work to raise your child vegetarian, especially vegan.  Here is some of what you need to know.

1. First and foremost, a vegan baby should be breastfed for as long as possible (at least a year). There is some concern that the breast milk from vegan moms may lack sufficient DHA, an omega-3 vital for eye and brain development, and taurine (an amino acid). Similarly, postpartum mothers need to be very careful about these levels for their own health and happiness.

2. Babies and young children need cholesterol to build their brains and nerve cells. Egg yolks contain both cholesterol and choline used for healthy brain development. For vegans, cholesterol can be made in the body from healthy saturated fats such as avocado, flax seeds and oil, and coconut oil. But it’s not clear that babies can synthesize all the cholesterol they need from vegan sources alone.

3. Children need good-quality fats. Brains are made up of 60 percent fat, more than a third of which is the essential fatty acid DHA. Essential fatty acids are fats that the body can’t produce itself. They are found in fish, fish oil, and seaweed, and can be made from olive oil, seeds, and nuts. Read more about fats and finding safe fish.

4. Children need bile to process fat, and taurine plays an essential part in the production and flow of bile. Taurine is also essential in the development and function of the brain and nervous system, kidney development, and the removal of toxins from the body. Taurine can be low in strict vegetarians, as meat, fish, and dairy (and breast milk) are its major sources. Although adults can manufacture some taurine themselves from the essential amino acids methionine and cysteine, newborns cannot. Taurine production can be inhibited by chronic candida, bacterial imbalances, elevated levels of mercury, lead, and cadmium, and exposure to MSG. Urine analysis has shown taurine deficiency in 62 percent of autistic children.

5. Children need protein. The protein in meat, fish, eggs, and milk is usu- ally considered of higher quality, but protein can be gotten from plant sources such as peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, sprouted nuts, and some whole grains. Learn how to cook and prepare and combine foods to maximize their protein content and minimize the anti-nutrients that might inhibit absorption.

Common deficiencies to watch for in vegetarian diets are:

  • B12, found only in animal foods;
  • vitamins A and D, which are most easily absorbed from meat, fish, eggs, and high-quality butter;
  • minerals such as zinc;
  • and omega-3 fats, which are  found in fish.
  • Soy can inhibit the absorption of protein and minerals and should be avoided altogether in babies.

 

Learn more about healthy eating on the award-winning website TheGreenMama.com. Get great recipes, inspiration, and research (as well as lovely photographs) at your fingertips in the Green Mama books. And sign-up for the Green Mama newsletter to get a few tips delivered semi-regularly in  your inbox. (I promise to never share your information, keep each email super short, and sometimes to make you laugh.) Sign-up here.