Children on vegan and vegetarian diets should eat three portions of protein foods a day in order to get enough iron and zinc, nutritionists suggest.
On Thursday, the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) issued new guidance on what toddlers should eat to stay healthy, including advice on portion sizes and the importance of limiting sugary cereals, salty crisps and fruit juice.
The organisation’s experts say that while vegan and vegetarian diets can be healthy for young children, parents are advised to visit a GP to ask for advice about supplementation of key nutrients.
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“It can be difficult for young children to get enough vitamin A and B12, riboflavin, iron, zinc, calcium and iodine,” the organisation states.
Its experts advise serving children on such diets three portions a day from the “protein foods” group, which includes houmous, cooked kidney beans, and peanut butter on bread or toast.
Sara Stanner, science director at the BNF, says families making the decision to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets “need to be aware of how to balance their diet, and use supplements if needed in order to ensure children get all the nutrients they need to be healthy”.
The new 5532 guide has been developed by nutrition scientists and an advisory group of experts in early years’ nutrition.
While milk is described as a “good choice for drinks”, as it provides calcium and other important nutrients, the guidance also recommends parents seek medical advice on supplementation if they are not offering dairy foods to their children.
As for children aged six months to five years – including those who are breast fed or consuming less than 500ml of formula milk per day – the BNF suggests parents give them supplements of vitamins A, C, and D.
Children under the age of two are advised to drink whole milk but experts say they can move to semi-skimmed milk after this age if they are eating well.
However, skimmed or one per cent milk is said not to be suitable as a main drink for children under five and children should not be given tea or coffee due to its caffeine content.
It is also suggested that children aged one to four consume five portions a day of starchy foods such as bread, cereal, potatoes, pasta and bread sticks.
Children are also advised to eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables, three portions of dairy foods and two portions of protein such as eggs, chickpeas or dahl (non-vegan and vegetarian diets).
Details are also included on what constitutes a single portion in the guide.
For example, one portion of pasta is stated as being the equivalent to two to five tablespoons, according to the experts, while a slice of bread is one portion, and a portion of dairy is one cheese ball or two to four tablespoons of grated cheddar.
As for giving children sugar, parents are urged to limit high-sugar cereals, fizzy and sugary drinks, and to choose unsweetened dairy foods, such as plain yoghurt, where possible.
While fruit juices are said to provide “some important vitamins”, the BNF says that they are also high in sugar and acidic for teeth. As a result, they should only be consumed at mealtimes and should be diluted.
The organisation also say that cakes, biscuits, sweets and chocolate should not form a regular part of children’s diet.
Stanner explains: “Even when parents know which foods are part of a healthy diet, it can sometimes be difficult to know what sized portion is suitable for a young child, and how often they should be eating from the different food groups each day.
“We know that many parents are very concerned about sugar, and our guide highlights that sugary drinks and sugary treats like biscuits, chocolate and sweets shouldn’t be a regular part of children’s diets.
The expert advises parents to check food labels and to look for lower sugar options when choosing foods like breakfast cereals or yoghurts.
When it comes to choose providing children with snacks, the BNF recommends two to three healthy options per day such as vegetable sticks, fruit, cheese and crackers or toast fingers with cream cheese.
As most young children aren’t able to regulate their own appetite, the organisation advises parents to “encourage them to eat but don’t force them or expect them to eat if they are not hungry”.
The guidance states: “Some children eat slowly, but generally will have eaten all they are likely to eat within 20-30 minutes so meals don’t need to be longer than this.”
The BNF also notes that children should be physically active for at least three hours over the course of a day – this can include rolling and playing on the floor, playing in the park or dancing.
The guidance comes months after Leeds was announced as the first city in the UK to report a reduction in childhood obesity following the introduction of mass parenting lessons on how to be stricter.
The city-wide initiative, which saw parents follow an eight-week programme on how to “take charge” and set boundaries for their children, has been linked to a significant drop in obesity levels.
In light of the initiative, a new study by Oxford University revealed that while obesity rates among five-year-olds in England remained unchanged between 2013-4 and 2016-7, at around 9.4 per cent, rates in Leeds dropped to 8.8 per cent over the same period.
The data comes from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), which requires all children to be weighed at the start and end of primary school.