Wisely chosen nutrition is fundamental for a balanced, healthy life. If you are vegetarian or vegan, it is important to update the clinical staff regarding eating habits, and the variety and types of foods eaten in the family.
A vegetarian diet, wisely consumed, can provide all dietary requirements, from infancy until old age.
Infants receiving a vegetarian diet grow well when their diet includes all the dietary components in adequate amounts and they are nourished in accordance with the dietary guidelines for all infants of their age.
Nonetheless, there are special dietary guidelines recommended for these infants, which are summarized below:
A vegetarian woman’s breast milk is similar in its composition to that of a non-vegetarian woman, and is nutritionally suitable for the developing infant. Vegetarian mothers’ infants grow and develop well when they receive mother’s milk in adequate quantities.
In vegan families which avoid all animal-derived foods, it is advisable to consult with a nutritional expert or dietitian in order to assess the mother’s food consumption and consider referral for blood tests. Monitoring of the infant: weight, height, head circumference and development are also important.
Infants who do not breastfeed, or who have been weaned, are to be fed with cow milk-based infant formula until the age of one year. In families that do not use animal milk or its products, the infant may be fed with soya-based infant formula.
Preparations such as soy “milk”, rice “milk”, nut “milk” or various home mixes are not suitable for the infant’s nutrition, and do not constitute a substitute for mother’s milk or infant formula. These foods can severely impair growth, and cause serious conditions of malnutrition.
From the age of half a year - the appropriate solid food for an infant who is not exposed to meat, poultry and fish is legumes of various types. Legumes should be used after soaking, adequate cooking and pureeing into a paste.
Additional foods that are suitable for these infants from the age of half a year include: pureed tofu, soya products, yogurt, cheeses from animal milk or well cooked egg.
A variety of foods that provide protein, such as legumes, grains and cereals, combined together over the course of the day, will ensure appropriate quality and quantity of proteins, as will as giving the appropriate amount of energy. A dietitian / nutritionist can guide you as to the proper combination that will ensure that the infant grows and receives all his nutritional requirements.
The use of dietary supplements for the vegetarian or vegan infant is the same as for infants who receive nutrition from animal sources. During the period of exposure to solid foods, there may be a need for fortified foods or special supplements to prevent deficiencies. Vitamin D3 supplement is recommended for all infants from birth, and iron supplement from age 4 months, as per the guidelines of the Ministry of Health.
There is great importance in the close monitoring of infants from vegetarian families, especially those from vegan families, as the following deficiencies could appear:
Vegetarian and vegan diets provide less available iron. It is therefore important to consume good vegetable sources of iron, such as legumes and grains (it is very important to be careful to soften and puree them before serving to the infant).
- Vitamin B12
Vegetarian diets, but mainly vegan diets, could provide too little of this vitamin. It is important to consult with a physician and a dietitian regarding this.
A nutritionist/dietitian can assess the infant’s diet. If it is found to be deficient in sources of available zinc, food that is rich in and/or fortified with zinc should be added, or an appropriate supplement should be taken.
- Calcium and vitamin D
Avoiding milk and dairy products necessitates special attention to supplementation of calcium. It is also recommended to use food fortified with vitamin D.
- Fatty acids
Not consuming foods of animal origin, such as fish and eggs, could cause a deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids. It is therefore recommended to accordingly use sources of fatty acids such as canola and soybean oil, seaweed and walnuts.
Since a vegetarian diet, and particularly a vegan diet, is low in iodine, if salt is used, iodine-fortified salt is recommended.