How to Balance Your Vegetarian Baby Meals

Vegetarian diets are great for adults. Research has shown vegetarians suffer less overall from obesity, cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes than their non-vegetarian counterparts [1,2,3]. The question is whether or not a vegetarian diet is compatible with the needs of infants.

Babies under 2 years go through rapid growth and changes, and have heightened nutrient requirements. They are also more susceptible to nutritional deficiencies from following a vegetarian diet [3]. For example, infants under 12 months are recommended to get around 50% of calories from fat while a vegetarian diet tends to contain less fat [4].

Experts say vegetarian diets can work very well, and that all the required nutrients can be obtained from plant only sources, as long as the baby’s meals are well-planned to complement each other [1,2,5]. While what constitutes a vegetarian diet is quite broad, from lacto-ovo vegetarianism (where dairy-products and eggs are okay) to veganism (no animal-sourced products), the emphasis is on providing a wide variety of energy and nutritional-dense food to babies.

What a vegetarian baby might miss out on

While all nutritional needs could be met through a vegetarian diet, a few key nutrients should be paid more attention to, especially for infants:

Protein is required for overall physical growth (bones, muscle, cartilage, skin, hair and blood) and the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. 2-3 portions/day and various types of protein sources are recommended [6]. Plant foods have less digestible/usable proteins compared to animal-source proteins, by up to 50%. A diversity of plant-based protein sources is key to consuming adequate, quality proteins; legumes, nuts and seeds provide high quality protein [3,7].

Vitamin B12 is essential for red blood cells, DNA formation and nervous system development and function. It also aids in the metabolism of foods, accessing more energy from the diet [6]. The challenge is finding plant foods that are a high-quality source of vitamin B12, as deficiencies can lead to long-lasting neurological disorders/impairments [8].

Vitamin D regulates calcium – key for bone health. It also contributes to the immune system’s function, reduced inflammation and risks of chronic diseases. The Department of Health (UK) recommends supplements for vitamins A,C and D every day from 6 months to 5 years [9].

Omega 3 fatty acids promote good cardiovascular health, visual function in infants, and proper neurodevelopment. Vegetarians typically have lower eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) levels since most omega 3’s are from fatty fish and other seafoods [7].

Iron is needed for the formation of red blood cells that carry oxygen. Iron deficiency is the most common and well-studied deficiency and is linked to long term effects on physical, mental, and immunological function.

Zinc is a key mineral involved in the support of enzymatic function that helps with digestion and metabolism, and also increases the body’s resistance to infection Western vegetarians are found to be deficient in zinc. However, the bioavailability of zinc in vegetarian diets is lower than non-vegetarian diets due to higher phytate and phytic acid content which make it more difficult to absorb zinc and iron.

How to keep a vegetarian baby healthy

Experts say a vegetarian diet can work very well. However, using both animal and plant food is just easier for parents. Vegetarian parents are recommended to be more mindful in designing baby meals to provide more diversity and nutrition. Here are a couple of tips:

  • Increase bioavailability (make nutrients easy-to-absorb)
    Pairing plant food with spices and acid can help nutrients to be utilized in the baby’s body. For example, add vitamin C to maximize dietary iron absorption. Adding lemon juice to cooked spinach, for example, can help baby’s absorb iron from it.
  • Use fortified food and supplements
    - Parents who are vegan and who are breastfeeding require a vitamin D supplement + possibly vitamin B12.
    - Fortified foods/supplements are suggested for a vegetarian baby to decrease the chances of any nutritional deficiencies in vegetarians [10]. A variety of beverages, cereals, bread, tofu, and eggs are fortified with the nutrients that vegetarian babies need.

How Nuttri helps design a vegetarian baby meal plan

  • Search foods by nutrient and check which plant foods offer more protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Check out the recommended preparation tips for baby food
  • Plan & record meals with diverse ingredients with the meal planning calendar