Want your baby to eat vegan? They better like spinach

Want your baby to eat vegan? They better like spinach

It's probably okay to feed your kids a vegan diet, provided they like spinach.

That's the advice from Dr Julie Bhosale, a child health and nutrition expert, following the hospitalisation of a number of Italian children suffering from malnutrition after being fed vegan diets.

In the latest case, a 14-month-old taken to a hospital in Milan was found to have calcium levels barely adequate for survival, and weighed barely more than a newborn.

There have been at least four other cases in the last 18 months, with veganism gaining in popularity in Italy.

Dr Bhosale says it's also gaining ground here.

"What we've seen here in New Zealand in the last five years is a 30 percent increase in people turning to vegetarianism and veganism," she told Paul Henry.

But whether to force a meat and milk-less diet on children, who have no say in the matter, is a touchy subject. Dr Bhosale says most people make an "emotive" decision to go vegan or vegetarian, and have to realise that makes it a lot harder to get children the nutrients they need.

"Your kids are going to be eating a lot of spinach," she says. "[Prepare to] get very, very creative with spinach recipes."

Calcium and iron pose particular difficulties. Dr Bhosale says fortified cereals are useless for babies, who don't even have the necessary enzymes to digest grains until they're a year old. And while they're born with a six-month supply of iron, there's "virtually none" in breast milk so again, spinach might have to come to the rescue.

"You're looking at about 3mg per 100mg in spinach, whereas a food source like liver, you're looking at 15mg per 100mg. Babies need about 10mg, so you're going to have to work a little bit harder."

While it's easier for vegetarians to get by - they're okay with drinking milk and eating cheese and eggs - vegans should be prepared to compromise their beliefs, unless their kid really, really likes spinach.

"If you don't need to, absolutely just have a whole balanced diet. But it's a very emotive issue, and it's important to take that into consideration."

The 14-month-old's parents have lost custody of the child.