“Oooh, but what about protein!? What about Iron?! Suuuurely you and your baby must be lacking in some key nutrient? They’ll have no energy! You surely can’t survive on a veggie/vegan diet?”

An understandable response you will probably get when you tell someone that you are feeding your family mainly plant-based meals.

We all share a confidence that veggies are very good for us, in fact there’s very strong scientific data indicating that populations eating the highest proportion of plant foods in their diet are the longest living and healthiest on the planet. So we know it is possible to get all the essential nutrients needed for our little ones to grow and be healthy through following a vegetarian or plant-based diet! In fact, it is possible not just to survive, but also to THRIVE!

It does however take more conscious planning, which is why we are here to offer a helping hand.


Food is a package deal

Before we dive into specific nutrients in more detail, lets take a little step back! It’s always good to remember food is a package deal! When something is touted as ‘rich in iron’, ‘high in vitamin C’ or ‘charged with protein’, stop and consider, what baggage does this proclaimed benefit come with? Refined sugar, nasty fats, over-processed meats or salt? Or is it rich in fibre and have tons of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals? This is the differentiating factor when your family chooses to eat a wide range of whole, plant-based foods; they are packed full of goodness without the nasties. As we will read below, the effect of eating a variety of colourful plant foods means the nutrients work together in synergy with each other to increase absorption. With all diets (carnivore, omnivore, pescetarian, herbivore…) it is very important to know if there are any missing nutrients or excessive nasties, especially when feeding your children. If you’re just planning to increase the plant-based or veggie meals into your family’s diet, take a look at the information below about important micro- and macro-nutrients, what they do, and what foods you can get them from.

A few top tips to get you started…

  • To ensure your child meets their daily requirements, aim for regular meals with healthy snacks in between

  • Offer a variety of foods – see our ‘Feed Baby the Rainbow‘ post for fruit and vegetable inspiration

  • Include lots of fortified cereals, pulses (lentils, beans, peas), potatoes, ground nuts and seeds, and tofu!

  • Vegan youngsters in particular will need to eat specific or fortified foods or take supplements* to get certain nutrients that are only derived from animal products

  • Remember that even though high fibre diets are great for adults, they can restrict intake in little ones as it fills their tummies too quickly! So, try to avoid bulky fibrous foods like cereals with added bran.

* See The Vegan Society website for further info on suitable supplements etc



Why it’s important…
Iron plays a vital role in transporting oxygen around the body.

plant iron clear.jpg

Good to know…

Want to know more sciencey bits about Iron absorption…?

If yes, read on! If not, skip down to CALCIUM but just remember don’t wash all your meals down with a coffee/tea/red wine and eat foods rich in vitamin C!

•  Some compounds (e.g. polyphenols, phytates, oxalates and soy) reduce the absorption of plant sources of iron.

Polyphenols (e.g. flavonoids and tannins) are found in tea, coffee, red wine and chocolate – (obviously don’t feed your baby these things, but it’s a tip for the adults to have them away from mealtimes to minimise their effects!)

Phytates are found in wholegrains – refined grains have less phytates but also less iron, so look for iron-fortified varieties for little ones. Alternatively, to maintain the benefits of wholegrain fibre while minimising the effects of phytates, eat your wholegrains with a rich source of vitamin C.
NB. High fibre foods fill up little tummies more quickly, which can make it harder to get enough nutrients in at mealtimes, so fortified refined options may be suitable.

That vitamin C formula again:

Oxalates are found in spinach, rhubarb, beans and nuts – “But I thought spinach was high in iron?!!!?”…confusing right?! Raw spinach contains oxalate, making it harder for the body to absorb the iron, however levels are greatly reduced when cooked (steam, stir-fry or microwave are best). Eat these foods with vitamin C to enhance absorption.

Soy has been shown to limit iron absorption – opt for fermented soy products (e.g. miso, tempeh, nato) as the iron is more readily absorbed.

It is easier to absorb iron from animal tissue but eating extra meat for the sake of iron regulation or taking iron supplements if you are pregnant needs careful consideration – please speak to a health professional if in doubt.

Here are two very useful bite video sized overviews of the current evidence on the subject of iron absorption.

1.  Heme Iron vs Plant Iron

2. Iron during Pregnancy



Why it’s important…
Calcium is essential for strong, healthy bones and teeth, particularly in growing infants and adolescents.


Spinach and SOME nuts, seeds, beans and dried fruit aren’t great sources of calcium.

For Vegetarians calcium can be found in dairy products e.g. milk, cheese, yoghurt, but not butter

Good to know…

•  Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium (see below)


Why it’s important…
Vitamin D is needed for our bodies to absorb calcium and to prevent rickets in little ones. It also plays a role in cell growth, immune and neuromuscular function, reducing inflammation and brain development.


Good to know…

•  The majority of our vitamin D is made when our skin is exposed to UV sunlight – if you get 15 minutes of sun exposure (without sun-cream) between 11am-3pm at least twice a week from April to September, you should meet requirements. Unfortunately, in the UK we can’t get enough of the right kind of sun exposure to convert vitamin D during the winter months (October to March).
•  Vitamin D is found in some veggie foods, but we can’t get sufficient from food alone.
•  Supplements* are recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and babies and children aged 6 months to 5 years.

* You may be eligible for free Healthy Start supplements for you and your little one – ask your Health Visitor


Why it’s important…
Vitamin B12 plays an essential role in building and maintaining the nervous system, DNA and red blood cells.

·         Eggs
·         Dairy (e.g. milk, cheese)
·         Almost all animal tissues, but not plants – so, if you are vegan, you should include…
·         Fortified products (e.g. yeast extract, soya milk/yoghurt/desserts, breakfast cereals, oat drinks)
Good to know…
An increased intake of B12 is not required during pregnancy, but it is for breastfeeding mothers – this can usually be achieved by diet, but vegans should take a supplement.*

* See the Vegan Society website for suitable supplements


Why it’s important…
Zinc is essential for every organ in the body to function well; it metabolises carbohydrates, proteins and fats; and it plays a role in cell division, the immune system, wound healing and vitamin A utilisation!

zinc clear.jpg

Good to know…

•  It is harder to absorb zinc from plants due to their phytate content – so opt for rich plant sources
•  Too much zinc inhibits iron, calcium and magnesium absorption and vice versa!


Why it’s important…
Iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones which are involved in regulating metabolic rate and utilising energy from food. It is essential during pregnancy for the development of baby’s brain and nervous system.


The Vegan Society recommends only having small quantities of sea vegetables that are known to have a consistent and relatively low iodine content (e.g. nori, wakame and arame seaweeds)

Good to know…

•  Sufficient iodine is needed pre-conception as it is essential to have enough during the early stages of pregnancy.
•  Requirements increase both during pregnancy and breastfeeding as baby’s brain develops.
•  Those following a diet low in iodine-rich foods (i.e. vegetarians and especially vegans) may be at risk of deficiency so may need to take a supplement.*

* However, advice should be sought before giving supplements as too much iodine can be harmful


Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals (2003) Safe Upper Levels for Vitamins and Minerals [online] Available at: Accessed 01/06/16

First Steps Nutrition Trust (2014) Eating Well: vegan infants and under-5s [online] Available at: Accessed 01/06/16

BDA Food Facts (2016) Complementary Feeding (weaning) [online] Available at: Accessed 01/06/16

BDA Food Facts (2016) Nutrients in Food [online] Available at: Accessed 01/06/16

NHS Choices (2015) Vegetarian and Vegan Children [online] Available at: Accessed 01/06/16