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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds ADAM: When we consider vegetarian diets, lacto vegetarian and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets for children, the important thing to remember there is that both of those diets contain good sources of protein-based foods– so dairy foods. And in the case of lacto-ovo vegetarian diets that contain eggs as well, protein is incredibly important for growth and development of young children. And we need to make sure that the quality of the protein they are receiving allows them to grow and develop appropriately. That’s not always achieved on a strictly plant-based diet.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds We know that whilst a well-planned vegetarian diet is OK for infants in the first 12 months of life, we also know that’s vegan diets generally aren’t suitable because of that growth and development that occurs so rapidly in that first 12 months. Not only B12, as an example, but protein, zinc, iron and even to some degree calcium are nutrients that we do need to be concerned about during that first 12 months of life given that rapid development does occur. And we know that certainly calcium is available in dairy products and so for lacto vegetarians or lacto-ovo vegetarians adequate dairy is appropriate and we know that we get our calcium from there. We also know that lactose actually helps absorb calcium–

Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds PAIGE: Yes. Yeah.

Skip to 1 minute and 40 seconds ADAM: –which is very important. From a zinc point of view, again we do know that with both lacto and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets the inclusion of animal products such as dairy as well as eggs, generally speaking, allows adequate zinc to be consumed by young children. When you’ve got a situation where children are transitioning from either breast milk or formula to vegetable-based solids, one key thing that we need to remember is that the first 12 months of life is a critical period for growth and development.

Skip to 2 minutes and 14 seconds PAIGE: Yeah.

Skip to 2 minutes and 14 seconds ADAM: So at around six months when you’re introducing those solid foods and transitioning from an exclusively breastfed or formula fed infant, you need to be aware of the nutrients of concern. By and large we know that iron stores diminish by around six months and so iron becomes a key nutrient. We know iron can be found in a lot of foods. Primarily we rely on meat and especially red meat as a good source of iron, but with introduction of solids, we rely on generally iron fortified infant cereals to supply that iron along with breast milk or formula depending on what mother has chosen. When we start introducing plant based foods, initially it’s all about taste.

Skip to 3 minutes and 1 second But later on when those amounts increase, we know that a largely plant-based diet can actually be quite fibrous and can fill up those little stomachs quite quickly. And that’s when we need to be aware of things like iron, zinc, and protein, especially during that first 12 months of life.

Skip to 3 minutes and 21 seconds PAIGE: Particular consideration that we have with mums who might be vegan– vitamin B12 can be difficult to obtain if you are vegan. It comes from a variety of animal products, so it’s really important to ensure mums, who are vegan, who are breastfeeding– actually obtain enough vitamin B12, which can then be transferred through breast milk to their baby.

Skip to 3 minutes and 47 seconds B12 was very important for growth and development of a newborn, so it’s important that mums who choose to be vegetarian or vegan for any number of reasons, follow a quite a well-planned diet and particularly during pregnancy and the early months postnatally when they’re breastfeeding perhaps– that they are getting enough key nutrients to support their own health, but also to support the health of the child.

Skip to 4 minutes and 11 seconds And so– whilst it wouldn’t be necessarily recommended that a mum start a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet perhaps during pregnancy– certainly that could be possible, but to ensure that there’s well-planned history of getting enough nutrients through the diet b– even before pregnancy and during pregnancy and then to transfer through breast milk in the early months postnatally. So for women who perhaps are following a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet during pregnancy or even beyond pregnancy, it’s really important that they have– perhaps have some blood tests to check levels of vitamin B12, iron, zinc and things like that.

Skip to 4 minutes and 54 seconds And particularly if they do choose to breastfeed it’s important to ensure that their levels of those nutrients and vitamins are actually adequate because they’re actually then transferring to the baby as well.

Skip to 5 minutes and 6 seconds ADAM: What we do know is that alternative beverages such as almond milk and rice milk are not suitable for children under 12 months of age. We know that they are perfectly fine in a well-balanced diet for adults– following vegetarian diets. But they just lack the protein, vitamins, and minerals that are needed by young children under 12 months. Paige, what are some of the misconceptions around vegetarian and vegan diets.

Skip to 5 minutes and 30 seconds PAIGE: Yeah, it’s a good question. I guess there are some misconceptions that a vegetarian or vegan diet is more healthy during pregnancy or for kids because it’s a plant based diet, but that’s actually not the case. Specifically, I guess, any diet can be healthy or unhealthy if it’s followed appropriately. It can be very healthy and there are some benefits to eating lots of vegetables in plant-based diets, but not necessarily the for everyone.

Vegetarian and vegan diets

Many people, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, choose to consume a vegetable-based diet – whether for cultural, medical or ethical reasons.

In Australia, it’s estimated that around 9–11% of the population eats a meat-free diet. In countries like India and regions of Asia, the numbers are much higher.

Key considerations

When considering a vegetable-based diet for infants, the key concern for all parents is whether they’re doing the best they can do for their children – and we’re often asked if a vegetarian or vegan diet is a healthy diet across pregnancy and early life.

The answer, at least in terms of some vegetarian diets, is a cautious yes. Adopting a vegetarian diet can be healthy, but very much depends on the foods you include in your and your child’s diet.

The type of vegetarian diet most commonly associated with significant nutritional problems in infants and children is the vegan diet, and, as such, isn’t recommended for infants during the first 12 months of life.

Likewise, mothers who follow a vegan diet also need to be particularly cautious about maintaining their vitamin B12 levels.

Types of diet

Vegetable-based diets can be classified into the following groups:

a baby chicken standing with one foot resting on an egg, decorative only Lacto-ovo: exclusion of red meat, offal, fish and poultry. Protein is acquired from dairy products, eggs, beans, legumes, pulses and nuts.
infant having a messy meal of yoghut Lacto: exclusion of red meat, offal, fish, poultry and eggs. Protein is acquired from dairy products, beans, legumes, pulses and nuts.
a very young child examining a variety of raw vegetable, decorative only Vegan: exclusion of all animal products and foods derived from animal products. Protein is acquired from beans, legumes, pulses, nuts and soy products like tofu.

As we progressively remove food variety from any diet, the ‘risk’ that it won’t meet all of an individual’s nutritional requirements increases.

This means more care needs to be taken to ensure the right mix of protein, vitamins and minerals are included in your diet to maximise your health.

In this video, Dr Paige van der Pligt and Dr Adam Walsh discuss some of the key nutritional issues and considerations to keep in mind when adopting a vegetable-based diet during an infant’s first 12 months of life, including advice for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

Your task

Watch the video and consider the following:

  • Do you or do you intend to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet during pregnancy or breastfeeding?
  • If so, how will you ensure you’re consuming enough vitamin B12?
  • If you’re considering raising your child on a vegetable-based diet, how will you make sure that they’re receiving the right amounts of protein, zinc, iron and B12?

In the comments, discuss your thoughts and practical strategies with other learners.

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Infant Nutrition: From Breastfeeding to Baby's First Solids

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