A research study concluding that young children who consume non-cow’s milk are significantly shorter than their cow’s milk drinking counterparts has been making the internet rounds and sparking debate about the appropriateness of a vegan diet for young children. (CBC article: Does drinking cow’s milk help children grow taller?)

Before swapping plant-based alternatives for those best-suited for baby cows, let’s take a more in-depth look at what this research article actually tells us.

While the study itself has several strengths, including its large, multicultural sample of Canadian children, it’s significantly limited by what is not included in the study design. Most notably, information on other factors, including diet and physical activity, that are key predictors of growth and height in children. Furthermore, knowing that cow’s milk may increase height is irrelevant unless discussed in the context of health. In other words, does being taller come with health advantages?

Research suggests no. In fact, being taller may actually increase an individual’s risk for fractures. In addition, a prospective cohort study that followed more than 96,000 white postmenopausal women from the Nurses’ Health Study and men aged 50 years and older from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study over a 22 year period showed that milk intake during adolescence did not reduce the rates of hip fracture in women and in men, actually increased the risk, although this effect was partially explained by the men’s, wait for it, HEIGHT.

Ensuring proper growth and healthy bone development in your little one depends on a lot more than the inclusion of one food; despite what Dairy Farmers of Canada say and how creative their marketing becomes, milk is not a miracle food.

Below you will find a quick summary of the keys to childhood nutrition.

Energy comes from three nutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. All three are equally important and should not be left out of your child’s diet. If your child is getting too few calories, growth may be compromised. However, more kids in our country suffer from a surplus of calories, rather than a deficiency. Trust in your child’s hunger and fullness cues and ensure you are providing at least 3 meals and 2-3 snacks each day.

What’s a vegan blog without addressing protein?
Protein is important for growth and development, but it is not more important than other nutrients. Meeting protein requirements for kids on a plant-based diet is easy to do, as their needs are not as high as adults, in light of their smaller bodies. Include a source of protein, such as soy milk, whole-grain toast (Silverhill’s is my favourite brand!), tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, or nut butter, at each meal.

Health priorities for kids are growth and development. Health priorities for adults are disease prevention/management and optimal wellness. As such, restricting fat in a child’s diet is not ideal since fat helps to ensure sufficient calorie intake and provides essential nutrients for growth. Focus on including whole-food fat sources, such as avocado, nuts and seeds (and their butters), flax, chia, hemp seed, as well as coconut yogurt.

Carbohydrates and Fibre
These two nutrients, which are key to disease prevention, are easy to get on a plant-based diet. One thing to keep in mind when it comes to fibre is that it can be very filling and can limit how much food your little one is able to eat. During your child’s prime growing years, feel free to offer a few lower-fibre grains, such as oatmeal, white pasta, or white crackers.

Bone-Building Nutrients:

Actual requirements for calcium are somewhat controversial, with some studies suggesting that the current recommendations are excessive. However, until more research is published, it’s wise to meet the current recommendations of 700-1300 mg (depending on your child’s age). Soy is the best plant milk for kids, providing not only 300 mg of calcium and 100 IU of vitamin D per cup, but also fat and protein that kids need for growth. Other good sources of calcium include mustard/turnip greens, kale, okra, bok choy, blackstrap molasses, tahini, tofu, and navy beans.

Vitamin D
The only reliable source of vitamin D is the sun. However, between October and May, the sun’s rays are not strong enough to allow us to make sufficient vitamin D. Therefore, it is recommended that Canadians, including toddlers and children, take a vitamin D supplement of at least 1000 IU per day. Vitamin D is essential for bone health as it enables calcium to get into the bone.

This nutrient helps bone-building cells to function properly. Since vitamin B12 is not found in reliable amounts in plants, it’s important that all vegans take a supplement. A daily dose of 10-25 mcg is sufficient for most kids.

Vitamin K
This fat-soluble vitamin helps to protect bones and reduce fracture risk. There is no need to supplement vitamin K on a plant-based diet since green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, beet greens, collards, and parsley) are a rich in this nutrient.

To conclude this post, I’d like to quote the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position statement on vegetarian diets, which you can read in it’s entirety here:

“… appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”

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