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Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds ADAM WALSH: 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, they 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’re receiving allows them to grow and develop appropriately. That’s not always achieved on a strictly plant-based diet.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 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 vegan diets generally aren’t suitable because of that growth and development that occurs so rapidly in that first 12 months. Not only B-12, as an example, but protein, zinc, iron, and even, to some degree, calcium and nutrients that we do need to be concerned about during that first 12 months of life, given that rapid development that 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.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds We also know that lactose actually helps absorb calcium, 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. So at around six months, when you’re introducing those solid foods and transitioning from an exclusively breastfeed or formula-fed infant, you need to be aware of the nutrients of concern.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds 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 is 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. 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.

Skip to 3 minutes and 20 seconds 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 29 seconds PAIGE VAN DER PLIGT: The particular consideration that we have with moms 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. B12 is very important for growth and development of a newborn. So it’s important that moms who choose to be vegetarian or vegan, for any number of reasons, follow quite a well-planned diet. And particularly, during pregnancy and the early months post-natally– when they’re breastfeeding, perhaps– that they are getting enough key nutrients to support their own health.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 seconds But also, to support the health of the child. 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 even before pregnancy and during pregnancy. And then to transfer through breast milk in the early months post-natally. 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, perhaps, have some blood tests to check levels of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and things like that.

Skip to 5 minutes and 1 second 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 13 seconds ADAM WALSH: 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’re 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 38 seconds PAIGE VAN DER PLIGT: 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 and plant-based diets, but not necessarily the case 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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