Is a vegan diet suitable for children?

Veganism is a common lifestyle choice practiced in today’s society, particularly through the consumption of a vegan diet. In fact, following the United Arab Emirates and China, Australia is the third fastest growing vegan market in the world, with the value of packaged vegan food predicted to rise.

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For those that are unaware, a vegan diet excludes all animal products, primarily due to animal rights, religious views or health and environmental concerns. Such animal products include meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and eggs as well as often overlooked animal-derived products such as honey and gelatin. Are there any foods that vegans can actually eat? The answer is yes! Fruits, vegetables and grains are the primary basis of a vegan’s intake. There are in fact numerous advantages associated with consuming a vegan diet, particularly in terms of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions due to decreased meat production and consequent consumption. Not only positively impacting the environment, decreased meat consumption is also beneficial to individual health. Recently, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meat as being “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1), due to positive associations with stomach cancer. Similarly, red meat was classified as being “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A), due to positive associations with pancreatic and prostate cancer. So in simple terms, excessive meat consumption is linked to an increased risk of certain cancers.

With the diet becoming more and more popular in recent years, it certainly seems as though ‘being vegan’ is the go to health trend of the moment. Social media accounts such as Instagram and YouTube are dedicated to the trend, as are a range of cafes and restaurants. The diet has also sparked a number of mixed views from the public. While some suggest a vegan diet can help you live longer, others consider those following the diet to be part of a cult, believing “veganism can feel a bit like everything that is wrong with wealthy, middle-class western humanity” (quite extreme I know). Likewise, meme creators have taken a liking to those practicing veganism.

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Unfortunately, due to the restriction of certain food groups, many individuals following a vegan diet experience a range of health implications. When the diet is not carefully planned and followed to meet nutritional requirements, it can negatively impact one’s health. When considering a child, however, the health implications can be much more detrimental due to a child’s requirements for growth and development. Due to the exclusion of all animal products, adequate intakes of protein, iron, zinc, calcium, omega 3s and vitamin B12 are much more difficult to achieve and need to be consumed through plant based sources. Therefore, when not supplemented correctly, the lack of these nutrients can in turn lead to deficiencies and ultimately malnutrition. As vitamin B12, in particular, is primarily found in animal products, vitamin B12 deficiencies often arise when consuming a vegan diet. As the vitamin is essential for a child’s development, a vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to developmental delays as well as permanent neurological damage.

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Sadly, cases of such malnutrition have occurred on a global scale. Recently, in Italy, a 14-month old baby boy was hospitalised with severe malnutrition, weighing only slightly more than an average 3-month old. The baby’s parents kept him on a strict vegan diet without providing the appropriate supplementation. Consequently, the parents’ custodial rights were removed (thank goodness). Similar cases have occurred in Italy, with babies and children suffering from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies on numerous occasions, due to their consumption of strict vegan diets. Personally, I don’t understand how a parent could carry out such actions without realising the obvious physical effects present in each of these children.

In response to these cases of malnutrition, a member of the Forza Italia centre-right party, Elvira Savino, has proposed a bill to be passed by the Italian parliament that would jail parents who restrict their children to a vegan diet. The bill states that parents are imposing a diet “devoid of essential elements for [children’s] healthy and balanced growth”. Highlighting the detrimental effects that an inadequate vegan diet can lead to, the bill aims to “stigmatise the reckless and dangerous eating behaviour imposed by parents”. Receiving a range of views from the public, certain commentators have suggested that the proposed bill could be used in a similar manner to penalise the parents of obese children (which is a whole other issue in itself).

The Dietitians Association of Australia, however, highlights that although animal products are restricted it is possible to obtain all of the necessary nutritional requirements when following a vegan diet. As stated within the Australian Dietary Guidelines:

“Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally adequate. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle.”

As children have entirely different nutritional needs to adults, it is recommended that a health professional be consulted, preferably a dietitian, to attain accurate dietary advice and also to ensure that a child of any age is able to thrive on a vegan diet and avoid malnutrition at all costs. Likewise, education is of great importance. Educating both parents and children of the common nutritional deficiencies experienced when following a vegan diet is crucial, as well as gaining a clear understanding of what foods are able to compensate the nutrients that are missing from animal products. Therefore, as a means to meet nutritional requirements, supplementation is essential. Ideally taking a food approach first, if such requirements are unable to be met, which is often the case regarding vitamin B12, then concentrated supplementation through prescribed dosages is considered the next appropriate measure. The ideal food approach would satisfy a child’s recommended daily intake for every nutrient in terms of the nutrient reference values for Australia and New Zealand, by particularly ensuring the consumption of foods rich in protein, calcium, iron, zinc, omega 3s and vitamin B12, as well as the fortification of foods and drinks such as calcium fortified soy products and plant milks.

book_coverShifting focus from the vegan diet for just a moment, another example where following a certain diet can be detrimental to a child’s health is the paleo diet. While the hype around the paleo diet seems to have died down for now, I’m sure everyone remembers when celebrity chef Pete Evans, aka Paleo Pete, planned to release a recipe book for new mums, babies and toddlers entitled Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way.
Unsurprisingly, the recipe book was dropped by publisher Pan Macmillan due to its ludicrous DIY baby formula recipe made from bone broth (yes bone broth). It was reported that the formula could seriously harm babies as it “contains more than ten times the safe maximum daily intake of vitamin A for babies and inadequate levels of other nutrients.” The World Health Organisation distinctly stipulates that commercial formula is the only safe and suitable alternative to breast milk, clearly dismissing Paleo Pete’s alternative.

More recently, Paleo Pete made a fool of himself again, telling an osteoporosis sufferer to remove dairy from their diet because it removes calcium from your bones. Similarly, he suggested that breastfeeding mothers should give camel’s milk to their child as a suitable replacement to breast milk. While it is an individual’s choice whether they consume dairy products or not, the claims made by Paleo Pete are simply ridiculous. All in all, it is important to be aware that such nutritional misinformation exists within today’s modern media space, particularly when such ‘information’ is delivered by someone with no accredited nutrition qualifications whatsoever (looking at you Paleo Pete).

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Whether following a vegan, paleo or any alternative diet other than what is recommended by the Australian Dietary Guidelines, it is critical to be aware of the entire food groups or nutrients that are missing as well as the accuracy of the information or claims made regarding the diet. Likewise, when an alternative diet is introduced, it is important to consult a dietitian to ensure nutritional requirements are met and adequately maintained. When considering children in particular, such measures are essential. As a parent, whereby providing your child a duty of care, it is crucial that the child’s health and wellbeing is of the highest priority due to the many developmental stages at such a critical age. Ultimately, a vegan diet is considered to be suitable for children, based solely on the fact that the diet is well planned and executed to provide optimal nutrition with supplementation when necessary.


Also published on Medium.

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