Michele Wood shares ideas for vegetarian weaning, published in SUMMER 2019, Issue 61
Many people today are vegetarian, whether for health, animal welfare or environmental reasons. If you have chosen to wean your beautiful new baby as a vegetarian, you are probably already aware of how to construct a healthy vegetarian diet for an adult; however, infants have different needs and you need to be sure that you are doing your best for your little one. Let’s take a look at the main considerations for vegetarian weaning:
A baby’s iron stores decline rapidly after birth, so this is a nutrient that is at high risk, with deficiency linked to poor growth, anaemia and low IQ. The iron found in vegetable foods is called non-haem iron and is available in pulses, nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens and whole grains. Unfortunately, these foods also contain phytates and oxalates, which inhibit iron absorption. Vitamin C helps to increase absorption of non-haem iron and over time the human gut can adapt to a high-phytate diet, but an infant may need a higher iron intake to compensate.
Protein is a key building block for the body, and a ‘complete’ protein is one that provides all the amino acids to meet the requirements for growth. Eggs are one of the highest-quality sources around and are fine to use from 6 months, while quinoa is one of the most complete vegan proteins. Other vegetable sources of protein are deficient in some of the amino acids, and foods such as beans and grains need to be eaten together to provide a complete protein.
CALCIUM and VITAMIN D
A baby’s need for calcium is high to support the rapid growth of the skeleton. A lacto-vegetarian diet will be rich in calcium, while vegan sources include pulses, seeds and nut butters. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, and while adults can manufacture vitamin D from the action of sunlight on the skin, babies cannot, so a daily supplement is advised.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, so it will be deficient in a vegan diet and may be lacking in the breast-milk of vegan mothers. This is one of the nutrients that will almost certainly need to be supplemented if you are weaning a vegan baby, and since needs will change as your baby grows, a nutritional therapist can advise on the dosage.
A baby grows rapidly during the first 12 months and needs a high-energy (calorie) intake. Fibre is filling but contains no calories, so while it is great for adults who want to maintain their weight, it is not suitable for infants, as they will feel full too quickly. Whole grains contain substances that interfere with nutrient absorption, so while it may seem counter-intuitive, the recommendation is to use refined grains (such as white rice) in the early years.
FOODS TO AVOID
This advice is the same for all weaning diets, vegetarian or otherwise!
- Salt and sugar should be limited, and honey is not suitable for children under 12 months.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners, fruit squashes, cordials and fizzy drinks.
- Cow’s milk and soya milk are not suitable for children under 12 months, and there are concerns about arsenic levels in rice milk, although other milk alternatives are fine for infants.
- Nuts are nutritious, but they can be a choking hazard, so they should be crushed or ground.
- Eggs can be used from 6 months, but they should be cooked until hard.
With the right knowledge it is easy to wean a healthy and happy vegetarian or vegan baby. Many breakfast cereals, milk replacements and infant foods are fortified with nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, so you could consider using these in conjunction with home-prepared foods (organic where possible). If you are unsure or are new to being vegetarian, it is a good idea to consult a qualified nutritionist prior to commencing weaning. Learning about nutrition can help us all by positively impacting on the way we view food and prepare meals.
Michele Wood is a nutrition tutor for The School of Health. Find out more about her work at www.schoolofhealth.com/the-school/the-faculty/michele-wood/