Are vegan diets suited for children?
Veganism is on the rise, and experts have different views on whether or not plant-diets are suited for children. A team of Polish scientists has now discovered that children on vegan diets have low stature and lower bone density than children who eat meat and dairy products. Children on vegan diets also are also more likely to lack amino acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin A, iron, selenium, iodine, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). It is particularly important for growing children to get enough nutrients to support their muscles, bones, brain, and a variety of enzyme processes. Also, children on vegan diets should be given relevant supplements to compensate for their shortcomings.
Vegan diets are based on plants and do not contain any food sources of animal origin, including eggs and dairy products. There can be many reasons for choosing a vegan lifestyle. It is commonly known that vegan diets do not contain vitamin B12. For that reason, vegans often take a supplement but that is rarely enough. Most studies of vegan diets and their effect on health have been conducted on adults, not on growing children. For a year, a team of Polish scientists has monitored 187 healthy children in the age group 5-10 years. Sixty-three were vegetarians, 52 were vegans, and 72 were carnivores.
The scientists collected data about the children’s diet habits. They also collected blood samples, divided the children in groups according to height and weight, and looked at certain other parameters.
They observed that vegan children were three centimeters lower on average and their bone mineral density was 4-6 percent lower compared with other children. The scientists also found that the vegan children lacked vitamin B12 and vitamin D, and iron anemia deficiency was more common among vegan children. In the Polish study, which is published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the scientists recommend giving vegan children relevant supplements. Their publication is supported by other studies of vegan diets and children.
Vegan diets often lack several nutrients
Children raised on vegan diets have lower blood levels of vitamin A and D compared with children who get normal diets, according to a Finnish study that is published in EMBO Molecular Medicine. Although the vegan children already took supplements of iodine, vitamin B12, and vitamin D, their levels of vitamin D were lower than in the other children – even though the blood samples were collected late in the summer. The scientists were also surprised to see that the vegan children had lower levels of vitamin A. This is probably because animal sources contain pure vitamin A (retinol), while vegetable sources contain beta-carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin A. Levels of LDL and HDL were also lower in vegan children. Cholesterol, which we get from animal foods, is produced in our liver and is an essential compound that is needed for healthy cell membranes and for synthesizing vitamin D, coenzyme Q10, and steroid hormones. The scientists also found that vegan children had lower levels of amino acids, which are building blocks of protein. Last but not least, it turned out that vegan children had lower levels of DHA (docosahexanoic acid), which is an omega-3 fatty acid. DHA plays a key role in our vision, brain, and nerve cell transmission. Vegetable sources like flaxseed oil, walnuts, and chia seeds contain omega-3 but as ALA (alphalinoneic acid), a form that many people have difficulty with converting into DHA. Oily fish are rich in DHA that the body can easily utilize.
Vegans should make sure to get enough iodine and selenium
According to a German study, adult vegans often lack iodine and selenium. It is therefore very likely that the same goes for children on vegan diets. Fish, shellfish, and seaweed are good iodine sources but many people are iodine-deficient. In Denmark, iodine is added to table salt for the same reason. Sea salt contains too little iodine to cover our need.
Both iodine and selenium are important for our metabolism. Selenium also plays a key role in the immune defense, fertility, and cancer prevention.
Vegans and vegetarians should pay careful attention to getting enough
- Essential amino acids (building blocks of protein)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin A
- Calcium and magnesium
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Malgorzata A Desmond et al. Growth, body composition, and cardiovascular and nutritional risk og 5-to 10-y-old children consuming vegetarian, vegan or omnivore diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2021
Mahase E. What does the evidence say about vegan diets in children? BMJ 2021
Topi Hovinen et al. Vegan diet in young children remodels metabolism and challenges the status of essential nutrients. EMBO Molecular Medicine, 2021
University of Helsinki. Vegan diet significantly remodels metabolism in young children. ScienceDaily 2021
Weikert C et al. Vitamin and Mineral Status in a Vegan Diet. Deutsches Aerzteblatt Online. November, 2020
BfR Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. Veganism: Vitamin B 12 is well supplemented, iodine is a matter of concern. ScienceDaily November 10, 2020
Ulla Gjeset Schølberg. Veganere mangler vitaminer og mineraler. Videnskab.dk 2016
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