Defining a Vegan Lifestyle
Many people remain confused about what it means to live a vegan lifestyle. Simply put, a vegan is a strict vegetarian who eats no animal products: no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, or other dairy products.
Vegans frequently avoid foods with animal products as ingredients, too: no refried beans with lard; no fries cooked in beef tallow; no margarine made with whey or casein (from milk); no foods made with meat extracts; and no foods with gelatin (from animal bones and hooves).
Vegans also eat baked goods made without butter, eggs or albumin (from eggs) and many avoid honey, which is made by bees.
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How can I get enough calcium in my diet if I follow a vegan lifestyle?
Low oxalate greens such as bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collard greens and kale, in addition to calcium-set tofu, are good sources of calcium that are relatively easy to absorb. Sesame seeds, almonds and dried beans have some calcium, but it’s more difficult for your body to absorb them. Calcium-fortified foods and beverages as well as vegan calcium supplements are other options to help you meet your calcium needs.
Remember that high-oxalate greens such as spinach and Swiss chard reduce calcium absorption, making these foods poor sources of calcium.
Feeding Vegetarian and Vegan Infants and Toddlers
The American Dietetic Association and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agree: Well-planned vegetarian and vegan eating patterns are healthy for infants and toddlers.
Time and attention are necessary to make certain young children, vegetarian or not, get all the nutrients they need for normal growth and development.
For the first four to six months, all babies do best with breast milk. Use iron-fortified formula (soy for vegans) if breast feeding is decreased or stopped. Cow’s milk, soymilk, rice milk and homemade formulas are not appropriate for babies during the first year because they have the wrong ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrate. They are also missing important nutrients for health, growth and development.
Solid foods can be introduced in the same order as for non-vegetarian infants. Replace meat with mashed or pureed tofu or beans and soy or dairy yogurt and cheese. (See Introducing Solid Foods.)
Since breast milk is such a rich source of nutrients, vegan mothers may want to breast feed for more than one year. Wean vegan infants with soymilk fortified with calcium and vitamins B12 and D. For toddlers, rice milk should not be used as a primary drink because it is low in both protein and energy.
Some Nutrients Needing Special Attention
When feeding vegetarian or vegan children, pay close attention to the following nutrients:
- Vitamin B12: Vegetarians can get plenty of B12 from milk products and eggs. Vegans, both breast feeding moms and children, need a good source of B12. Options include a supplement or fortified foods like soy or rice beverages, cereals and meat substitutes.
- Vitamin D: The AAP recommends all breast-fed infants receive 400 IU per day of supplemental vitamin D starting shortly after birth. This should continue until your child consumes the same amount of vitamin D from fortified milk: at least one quart per day of cow or soy milk.
- Calcium: Breast and formula-fed babies, as well toddlers who eat milk and dairy foods, usually get plenty of additional calcium from foods such as yogurt and cheese. For vegan toddlers, calcium-fortified foods and beverages or supplements may be necessary. See a registered dietitian for advice.
- Iron: The iron content of breast milk is low, even if moms are eating well. Babies are born with enough iron for four to six months. After this age, vegetarian and vegan infants need an outside source. Options include iron-fortified cereals or supplements.
- Protein: Babies need plenty of protein for rapid growth during the first year. Protein needs can be met with breast milk or formula until about 8 months. After that, add plant proteins from beans and cereals and fortified soy milks. Lacto-ovo toddlers can get protein from yogurt and eggs.
- Fiber: Lots of fiber can fill toddlers up quickly. Provide frequent meals and snacks. Use some refined grains, such as fortified cereals, breads and pasta, and higher-fat plant foods like sunflower butter and avocadoes to help vegetarian children meet their energy and nutrient needs.