The Health Ministry has prepared nutritional advice for the first time for babies in vegetarian and vegan families.
"A vegetarian diet, used in an intelligent fashion, can provide all the dietary needs from infancy through old age. Babies receiving a vegetarian diet grow well when their diet includes all the food components needed in an adequate amount, based on the dietary instructions for babies their age," recommends a special professional committee established to study the nutrition of vegetarian and vegan babies.
The committee included 12 experts from the Health Ministry and the Israel Pediatric Association. The recommendations relate to three groups of vegetarian and vegan diets: Vegans who eat no animal products whatsoever, vegetarians who eat dairy products, and vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs.
The committee's dietary recommendations relate to the various foods the babies need. As for infants, the experts say mother's milk of vegetarian mothers is similar in content to that of non-vegetarian mothers, and appropriate for developing children. "Nursing is common in vegetarian families and it is appropriate to encourage mothers to nurse their babies and to continue doing so also when they add solid foods, at least until [the baby is] one year old," state the recommendations. But "extreme vegans," as the document calls them — those who eat no animal products whatsoever — are encouraged to evaluate the mother's diet by consulting with a dietician or nutritionist and consider taking blood tests in cases where certain deficiencies are possible.
In families where the young children are not nursing or have already been weaned, the baby can be fed using infant formulas based on cow's milk, and in families which do not eat dairy products soy-based infant formula can be used. "'Rice milk,' 'almond milk' or other home formulas are not appropriate to infant nutrition and are not a substitute for mother's milk or infant formula. Such foods can seriously damage the development of the child and can cause serious situations of malnutrition," states the Health Ministry report.
As for solid foods, the recommendations are to feed children who do not eat meat, chicken or fish solid foods such as legumes, after soaking, appropriate cooking and pureeing, from the age of six months. Other foods appropriate for such babies include: ground tofu, soy products, yoghurt, cheese and well-cooked eggs. "Avoiding meat, fish, dairy products and eggs requires a special consideration to complete the dietary components, and foremost protein and energy," states the report.
Starting at one year of age, it is possible to add whole cow's milk and soy milk to the menu. The child can also be fed energy-rich foods such as avocado, legume spreads, tofu and herbs.
One of the weaknesses of the diet of vegan families is a lack of Vitamin B12, whose source is usually from red meat. The Health Ministry states that it recommends regular use of a vitamin supplement for B12, in particular for vegan nursing mothers. Iron and its absorption is also usually lower in food from plant sources compared to those from animals. "An efficient promoter of absorption is giving Vitamin C during the same meal that includes iron, since it increases the absorption of iron from plant sources ... It should be ensured that the baby receives an iron supplement from the age of four months," state the nutritional recommendations.
The committee made a number of additional recommendations: It is important to evaluate the baby's consumption of zinc and if the diet is low in zinc, foods rich in the mineral should be added. Similarly, it is recommended to use foods enriched in Vitamin D to provide adequate calcium, and to strictly follow the Health Ministry's recommendations on Vitamin D supplements. The ministry also recommends using alternative sources of food for fatty acids whose source is in animal products, and advises using soy and canola oil as well as walnuts and seaweed. To overcome a deficiency of iodine, which is characteristic of vegetarian and vegan diets, the committee recommends using iodized salt during cooking.