Food choice has a critical role to play in every stage of life and is one of the most important determinants of health outcome. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned whole foods plant-forward diet can meet “the nutrient needs and promote normal growth at all stages of the life cycle including pregnancy and lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adults, and for athletes.”
Pregnant and lactating women
Anyone following a vegetarian diet during pregnancy and lactation should pay special attention to N-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. A recent study in Nutrients states that evidence suggests that a well-planned vegetarian diet could be safe during pregnancy and lactation, with “a strong awareness for balanced intake of key nutrients.”
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned whole foods plant-forward diet can meet “the nutrient needs and promote normal growth at all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence and older adults, and for athletes.”
During pregnancy, micronutrient insufficiency and caloric restriction can be more common among people who choose vegetarian diets because they are less expensive than an omnivorous diet. But with careful planning, support, and adequate intake of nutrients, pregnancy outcome is like those reported in the non-vegetarian population. More recently, The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine concluded that, though there are statistically significant differences in birth weight between the vegan and omnivorous groups, the values were all within the acceptable physiological range.
Since plant-based dietary patterns seem to reduce the risk of chronic disease, including heart disease and stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, pregnancy can be a chance to foster dietary habits that promote parental and fetal health. And it’s possible to have a healthy pregnancy and lactation for the parent and the developing fetus and newborn with the proper support for planning and implementing a whole foods plant-forward diet, including dietary choices and supplements.
Infants, children and adolescents
Breastfeeding is the ideal nutrition for any newborn through 6 months, but if it’s not possible, infant formula can be used as the primary beverage. There are many different varieties to suit dietary needs and preferences. Introduction to solid foods begins around 6 months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines about what solids to introduce, and how. The guidance is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Academy for Pediatrics.
If adopting a vegetarian way of eating, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that “foods should be rich in energy, protein, iron and zinc and may include hummus, tofu, well-cooked legumes and mashed avocado.” Toddlers who are already eating a variety of foods and developing normally can start drinking full-fat fortified soy milk or other similar plant milks. The academy also points out that vegetarian children and teens have a lower risk for overweight and obesity compared to their non-vegetarian peers. When BMI is in the normal range in children and adolescents, the values are more likely to remain in the normal range into adulthood, which significantly reduces disease risk.
According to the academy, though protein consumption by young vegetarians meets or exceeds recommendations, vegan children may need more protein because of differences in digestibility. So it’s important to working with a qualified professional to plan a diet that’s sufficient in protein for vegan youth. And if a vegetarian diet is not well-planned, it too could be deficient in some nutrients, including iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and for some, calcium and vitamin D.
Thus, adequate nutrition is possible for infants, children, and adolescents on a whole foods plant-forward diet with proper support is offered to plan and implement this way of eating, as well as education about healthy food choices and eating habits. If it’s adopted early in life, this diet can foster lifelong healthful eating habits and optimal health.
Age-related muscle loss is the main concern for vegetarians who are older, and especially for older vegans. A recent article in Advances in Nutrition that proteins in a vegan diet have lower tend not to be absorbed as well in older adults because of the lower essential amino acid content in plant-based foods – which has led to a widespread believe that a vegan diet doesn’t provide older adults with enough protein. According to the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, there may be evidence suggesting protein is used less efficiently in older adults, and that this can translate to increased protein requirements. But a well-planned whole foods plant-forward diet with a focus on protein rich-plant foods like legumes, including soy products, can offer sufficient protein.
Synthesis of Vitamin D is less efficient in older people, so supplements are recommended, especially for people who don’t get much time in the sun. They also need more calcium, and the academy’s position is that fortified foods like plant milks can offer supportive nutrition, though supplements may also be necessary. Finally, because chronic inflammation of the stomach is common in people over age 50, they typically absorb less vitamin B12, even from animal products. So B12 supplements are recommended, regardless of diet.