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Vegetarian and vegan diets

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.
(music playing) (dialing in)
KONSITA: Hello Jazzmin?
KONSITA: Oh! Hi, nice to meet you, Jazzmin! My name is Konsita and I’m a dietitian here at the clinic.
JAZZMIN: Nice to meet you too, Konsita.
KONSITA: So, Jazzmin, how can I help you today?
JAZZMIN: Well I’ve heard about all the benefits of vegetarian diets on health and the environment and I’d love to try a vegetarian diet for myself and my baby girl, but I’d really like to hear some professional advice first. Could you give me some advice?
KONSITA: Yes of course What was your little girl’s name?
KONSITA: Ahhh, Emilia, ok! (nod and smile) Well vegetarian diets are certainly becoming more popular. Many people do it for religious or ethical reasons. But as you said, it has many health benefits such as lower risks of heart diseases, diabetes, and obesity. It’s also better for the environment as it uses less resources to produce and less waste.
KONSITA: So it’s a good idea
JAZZMIN: Um, does it mean that a vegetarian diet safe for Emilia?
KONSITA: Well a vegetarian diet is safe for all stages of life but it needs to be carefully planned, especially during pregnancy, breastfeeding and infancy when nutritional needs are higher. Um, a few nutrients to consider when going on a vegetarian diet are things like iron, zinc, vitamin B12, iodine omega 3 fats like EPA and DHA. Now these nutrients are important for infant growth and development but they can be more challenging to meet on a vegetarian diet.
JAZZMIN: Ah ok. [short pause] So, what kind of foods can I incorporate into Emilia’s meal plan to meet her nutritional requirements?
KONSITA: Well think of it as a diet largely made up of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes with meat alternatives. Some vegetarians also include dairy products or eggs. If meat products are totally excluded then it can be replaced by soy products, legumes, nuts/seeds and foods with added vitamins and minerals.
JAZZMIN: Mmhmm. Right! So could you please give me some meal or snack ideas?
KONSITA: Firstly, you want to continue to breastfeed or formula feed Emilia as they provide all of those nutrients that I mentioned. When Emilia’s beginning to learn to eat solid foods, it’s often helpful to offer breastmilk or formula first before solid foods. And then as she gets better at eating solids, they can be offered first followed by breastmilk or formula. So at 6-8 months, you want to offer 2-3 meals with 1-2 snacks.
JAZZMIN: Right, ok
KONSITA: Umm, at this stage the aim is to introduce a variety of plant-based foods especially iron rich foods like fortified infant cereals, tofu, legumes, and serve that with foods rich in vitamin C to increase absorption. So some examples of meals could be ahh lentils with soft broccoli or sweet potato; or brown rice with tofu or eggs and pumpkin. snacks may be soft fruits and vegetables like banana, pear, kiwi, avocado, cauliflower, carrots or it could be grains like cooked pasta or strips of toast with nut butters
JAZZMIN: Sure, so the key is to continue breast or formula feeding, but starting to include a variety of pureed soft fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains and combine the iron and vitamin C rich ones into meals and snacks. What about when Emilia is a bit older?
KONSITA: Yeah you’ve got that right, when Emilia is getting older at 9-12 months, you can offer 3 small meals and 1-2 snacks. And the meals should include at least 3 food groups, including a mix of refined and unrefined grains, vegetables and protein rich foods. So maybe you could start with 1-2 tablespoon of each foods and adjust the amount according to her appetite. Some examples are chickpeas and vegetable stew with brown rice, or pasta with cheese sauce and vegetables or noodle soup with vegetables and tofu. And similarly snacks similarly could be wholegrain toast with cheese or nut butters; ah, soft vegetable sticks and hummus (chickpea dip); and yoghurt and fruits.
JAZZMIN: OK, great. So I basically follow the similar principles for planning meals and snacks, with grains, vegetables, fruits and protein rich foods, but slowly increase the amount and transition her to family meals with more texture.
KONSITA: Got that right Jazzmin, yes, and I will provide some written information and meal plans to help you remember all of this.
JAZZMIN: Wonderful, thank-you, that will be very helpful. Before I go away and start implementing these myself, are there any particular things that I need to watch for?
KONSITA: Well, if you’re excluding all animal products, make sure you are eating foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take a B12 supplement. The amount of B12 in the mother’s diet directly influence the amount of B12 in breastmilk.
JAZZMIN: Interesting. I did not know this.
KONSITA: Sure, glad to help. Now, in Australia, foods that are fortified with B12 include selected soy milk and vegetarian meats, but please check the labels as they can vary quite a lot. And also remember that while plant milks such as soymilk, almond milk, or rice milk, they are fortified with vitamins and minerals and can be a good source of nutrients for adults, but they’re not suitable as a main drink for infants under 12 months.
JAZZMIN: Right! Ok, Consume foods rich in Vitamin B12, and milk other than breast milk or infant formula should not be given to Emilia as a main drink during the first year.
KONSITA: Yes, that’s right.
JAZZMIN: Thank you Konsita for providing these valuable advice and tips. Much appreciated. I think I have a good idea on where to start.
KONSITA: You’re very welcome Jazzmin. I look forward to hearing back from you on how you went I wish you and Emilia well.

Plant based diets are increasingly popular and they are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including infancy, childhood, pregnancy and breastfeeding.

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.

We know that plant based diets are good for our health and the planet. People who consume a vegetarian or largely vegetarian diet tend to have lower risks of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Compared to diets rich in animal products, plant based diets are more environmentally sustainable as they use far less natural resources to produce.

Even if you’re not a vegetarian, eating some meatless meals can be good for you and good for the planet. Indeed, a diet largely made up of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes with some animal products or vegetarian alternatives is recommended.

For all of us, whatever food we prefer to include in our diets, it’s really useful to have guidelines about how to ensure you and your baby will thrive.

Key Considerations

Most nutrients found in animal products can also be found in plants. But several nutrients, iron, B12, iodine, omega 3 fats and zinc can be harder to obtain from plant foods alone. Given this, careful planning is important.

The first 12 months of life is a critical time of rapid growth and development, and deficiencies in these nutrients can have impair the health of your baby.

Watch the video where Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng and Konsita Kuswara, a dietitian, discuss some strategies on ensuring a well-balanced vegetarian or plant-based diet for infants and mothers during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

The table below summarises the key nutrients, their best sources and strategies to get the most out of plant based diets. IN_2.9_Key_Nutrients_200928.png
Key Nutrients table (select the image to download the PDF version)

Tips to ensure a well balanced vegetarian or vegan diets

Here are a few tips to help you and your baby follow a well-balanced vegetarian diet. You can also find an example meal plan for a vegetarian diet for infants below.

  • Breastfeed your baby for the first six months and continue breastfeeding to 24 months. If breastfeeding is not possible, donor breastmilk or infant formula are the only safe alternatives. Please revisit contents in week 1 that discusses milk feeding in more detail.
  • At around six months, introduce iron rich first foods such as iron fortified cereals, tofu, chickpeas and lentils combined with foods rich in Vitamin C such as broccoli, capsicums, oranges and berries. If you include some animal products in your diet, red meat is a rich source of iron and can be included as first foods. See steps 2.4 and 2.5 for details on appropriate textures.
  • Vitamin B12 only occurs naturally in animal products. The amount of B12 in breastmilk also depends on the mothers’ diet. For vegan mother and baby, eating foods fortified with vitamin B12 or having B12 supplements is important to meet the required intake. Similarly, iodine is generally found in seafood and commercial breads. Vegan infants not consuming seafood or bread regularly will need iodine supplements. Please consult appropriate healthcare professionals such as paediatricians, doctors, maternal and child health nurses, or dietitians for individualised advice.
  • Wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds are good sources of iron, zinc, and omega 3 fats and should be included in most meals.
  • Regular monitoring of nutritional status is recommended.

Sample Vegetarian Meals for Baby 6-9 Months Old, select the image to download a PDF version
Select the image to download a PDF version of the table

Sample Vegetarian Meals for Baby 9-12 Months Old, select the image to download a PDF version
Select the image to download a PDF version of the table

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, what are some strategies to ensure that you’re consuming enough iron, zinc, omega 3 fats, iodine and 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 these key nutrients?
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Infant Nutrition: from Breastfeeding to Baby's First Solids

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