QUESTION: "We plan to feed our 9-month-old a vegan diet. We started feeding her solid foods a couple of months ago, and so far, she has had some vegetables, fruits, and grains.
"My husband and I are debating whether to give her any soy products at all. Do you think this is a good idea? If we do avoid soy, how do we make sure that she gets adequate calcium and protein? Are there any other major nutrients we have to make sure she gets if we go the soy-free route?"
A.H., via e-mail
ANSWER: I wonder why you are considering avoiding soy products. Some cultures have been using soy foods in moderate amounts for centuries, and soy foods can provide dietary variety and convenience. I think soy foods have been unnecessarily demonized on some websites and in some popular literature. There actually appear to be some health advantages to early use of soy, especially in terms of reducing breast cancer risk. I do not personally see any need to totally avoid soy products, unless, of course, your child has been diagnosed with a soy allergy.
Soy foods are naturally good sources of protein and iron and are a concentrated source of calories. Fortified soy products also provide calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. I'll touch on each of these nutrients briefly. For more on feeding vegan children, see www.vrg.org/nutshell/kids.htm.
A 9-month-old doesn't need huge amounts of protein. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 11 grams a day; this is also mainly supplied by breast milk at this age. Most 1- to 3-yearolds need approximately 13 grams of protein, and 4- to 8-year-olds need approximately 19 grams. Being sure to include some foods that are fairly high in protein, such as beans, quinoa, nuts, and nut butters, to your daughter's diet can help meet protein needs.
- When you introduce your baby to beans, make sure they are well-cooked and then either mashed or puréed. Nuts and nut butters are choking hazards for babies and toddlers.
- Nuts can be ground finely and mixed with other foods like rice; nut butters can also be added to other foods but not eaten by the spoonful (for babies and toddlers).
For a table of protein in some vegan foods, see www.vrg.org/nutrition/protein.htm#table2.
Good sources of iron include dried beans, whole and enriched grains, and green vegetables. (See www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.htm#table1.)
Your daughter doesn't need as much calcium as an older child or an adult. The recommendation for infants your daughter's age is 270 milligrams of calcium daily. Calcium recommendations go up with age—500 milligrams for 1- to 3-year-olds, 800 milligrams for 4- to 8-year-olds, and 1,300 milligrams for older children and teens.
Right now, assuming that you are breastfeeding, your daughter is getting most of her calcium from breast milk. Once she's weaned, however, she'll need other good sources of calcium. Some non-soy plant milks have calcium added to them. Green vegetables, such as kale and collard greens, also provide calcium. (The calcium in spinach is not well absorbed.) After you stop breastfeeding, you can use charts that detail the calcium in foods (www.vrg.org/nutrition/calcium.htm#table1) to see if your daughter is getting enough. If not, a children's calcium supplement would be needed.
Vitamin D is added to soymilk and some other plant milks. Look for brands fortified with vitamin D when your daughter stops nursing.
Good sources of vitamin B12 include fortified plant milks, fortified veggie ‘meats,' fortified breakfast cereals, and Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast.
Although we often hear concerns about obesity in children, we also need to be aware that children need enough calories to grow normally. Soy products are relatively high-calorie (compared to fruits and vegetables, for example), so if you are not using them, you may need to be more aware of other calorically dense foods, such as bean dips, avocados, and nut butters. Keep an eye on your daughter's growth rate, and add higher calorie foods as needed.
QUESTION: "I lost approximately 10 pounds after I had surgery a year ago and haven't been able to gain it back. (I was thin already.) My doctor says it's not because of any medical problem, and I'm not taking any medicines. I sometimes feel weak and dizzy and know that I need to gain weight.
"I've been vegan for many years and think that my diet is pretty healthy. I usually eat a large bowl of cold cereal with rice milk for breakfast, along with several pieces of fresh fruit. Lunch is a big salad or a veggie sandwich and a couple of more pieces of fruit. For dinner, I like to make stir-fries or a vegetable stew. I usually snack on fruit and a few nuts. I don't feel like I can eat any more food than I am eating now. Do you have any ideas?"
ANSWER: While your diet sounds extremely healthy, it also includes many foods that are commonly described as 'bulky.' Bulky foods make you feel full because they have a lot of fiber, but they don't provide the calories that you need to gain weight. Fruits, raw vegetables, and whole grain cereals all are very filling foods. They are great if you're trying to lose weight but may not be the best choices when you're trying to add pounds.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Try cutting back a bit on the fresh fruit and raw vegetables and snacking on more nuts, bean dips, avocados, energy bars, and other higher calorie foods.
- Instead of starting your meals with a big salad, eat other foods with more calories first. If you still have room, then have some salad.
- Make sure your beverages provide some calories. Instead of filling up with water, drink a smoothie with lunch, or have a glass of fruit juice or soymilk with dinner.
- Use more oil in cooking. For example, sautée with canola or olive oil, and make salad dressings with flax oil.
And remember that successful weight gain takes time. You can realistically expect to gain an average of half a pound to a couple of pounds a week.
QUESTION: "I saw a website that showed how much sugar there was in foods. It was really interesting - they used sugar cubes to compare the sugar in different foods. I was so surprised to see that there's more sugar in an orange or a bunch of grapes than in three chocolate chip cookies. How can that be?"
O.S., via e-mail
ANSWER: Fruits contain a kind of sugar called fructose (literally, fruit sugar). They also contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. For example, that orange may supply all of the vitamin C that you need for an entire day, along with other vitamins and fiber. Even though they contain fruit sugar, oranges are still pretty low in calories. They're called a nutrient-dense food, a food that packs a lot of good nutrition in a small number of calories. In contrast, the chocolate chip cookies may have less sugar, but they also don't offer much of anything else, except possibly fat and calories. It's important to look at the big picture and not just focus on sugar in whole foods like oranges or grapes.