Plant-based Baby Food Weaning
Meghan and Harry Sussex have reportedly decided to raise their child on a planet-based diet & it is certainly becoming very popular amongst parents. In this month’s blog we look at the benefits of the plant-based approach to weaning.
If a plant-based diet is to meet the nutritional demands of a growing baby or active toddler we need to be more mindful when considering food choices. Looking very carefully at the individual components of meals and the overall nutritional profile that our child is getting over the course of a week to ensure they are getting variety, balance and a full spectrum of nutrients.
For example plant-based diets provide a variety of fresh, nutrient-rich plant foods packed full of fibre, beneficial fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. However, it’s also true that a plant-based diet – without the easily absorbed protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12 offered by animal products- may more easily result in nutritional gaps. So we may also need to consider additional nutritional supplementation to support those nutritional demands that are harder to meet with a plant-based diet.
Let’s look at the type of nutrients and the food sources we need to particularly focus on:
Vitamin D: for optimum bone density, mood and immune health. As well as the sunshine, mushrooms that have been left in the sun are a great vegan source of vitamin D.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids: for optimum brain development, immunity and eye health. Pumpkin seeds, walnuts, algae, hemp, chia and flaxseed are all brilliant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Calcium : particularly important considering the calcium demands of the bones and teeth of a growing baby. For calcium-rich plant foods look to green leafy veg (i.e. spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower), tahini, tofu, sesame seeds, almonds.
Iron: essential for healthy formation of red blood cells and optimum energy levels. Green leafy veg and legumes (i.e. lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans and peanuts) are excellent sources of iron.
Vitamin B12: for energy metabolism, optimum immune function and healthy red blood cell development. Whilst vegetables do contain some levels of vitamin B12, it is so challenging to get enough vitamin B12 from plants alone that supplementation is recommended.
Protein: needed for every cell within the body for growth, development and repair. Excellent vegan sources of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are legumes (lentils, peas, chickpeas, any beans, soybeans, and peanuts), hemp seeds, chia seeds, quinoa, nut butters, nuts. It’s important that a variety of protein sources are consumed so that our bodies receive the complete range of amino acids essential for optimum growth.
We also need to consider how we are getting zinc (nuts, seeds), vitamin B6 (avocados, pistachios, butternut squash) and iodine (seaweed) from a plant-based diet.
It’s worth noting that many of these minerals and vitamins - when obtained through plant foods - are not as easily absorbed by the body as those same nutrients when consumed in animal products. For example, iron from plant sources is less bioavailable than iron found in meat; calcium within some plant foods (e.g. spinach) may be blocked by oxalates within those same plants; the body needs to work hard to convert the plant version of essential fatty acids (ALA) into the more active, anti-inflammatory form of essential fatty acids (EPA and DHA).
Plant-based Baby Food combinations
To address this we need to consider either combining foods so that nutrients can work synergistically to ensure optimum absorption. So, things to think about:
- When eating plant sources of iron, try to combine with vitamin C-rich foods. Vitamin C helps the absorption of iron which comes from plant sources.
- When consuming plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, try to also eat zinc rich foods to help the body convert these omega-3s to their more active form.
As mentioned, we may need to consider nutritional supplementation for babies on a plant-based diet. This can be done with the advice of a nutritional therapist or doctor in order to ensure the correct nutritional requirements are met. This is particularly the case for vitamin B12 and vitamin D, optimum levels of which are almost impossible to achieve from a plant-based diet alone.