Lifestyle

Can following a vegan diet be appropriate for children? | Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Going totally vegan is becoming increasingly popular among health-conscious adults and many encourage their children to follow suit. But some parents are unsure whether diet restrictions they find healthful for themselves are also a good choice for their kids.

The idea of bringing up youngsters as vegans is controversial, even among nutrition experts. Critics warn that an exclusively plant-based diet may be inappropriate for young children because of the risk of malnutrition when essential nutrients provided in animal products are missing.

Infants and toddlers have special dietary needs because of their rapid growth and development. For those reasons, no dietary restrictions should be applied under the age of two.

Proponents claim that following the dietary guidelines of vegans is beneficial at every stage in life and in any case preferable to the typical American diet, which offers higher amounts of calories and fat but is of lesser nutritional quality.

Veganism, the strictest form of vegetarian diets, excludes all animal food products, including eggs and dairy products. Less stringent variations are semi-vegetarianism (includes fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products but no beef, lamb or pork), lacto-vegetarianism (includes dairy products) and ovo-vegetarianism (includes eggs).

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The Academy also stresses that “vegetarian diets in childhood and adolescence can aid in the establishment of lifelong healthful eating patterns.” In other words, early adherence to vegetarian eating styles can lay a good foundation for nutritional health, whether those patterns last or change later in life.

A predominantly vegetarian diet is recommended for both children and adults who have weight problems, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. One in three children living in the United States today is overweight or obese and will likely develop some diet-related health problems over time, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Switching to a vegetarian-style diet, sooner rather than later, can help prevent many of these negative health effects.

While it is true that following a strict vegan diet can have its challenges in terms of nutritional balance, vegans can plan their meals carefully to ensure sufficient access to a full range of important nutrients, including so-called “complete” protein. For children in their growing stages, lack of protein can cause serious health problems, including stunted growth and other developmental setbacks.

Only animal and soy proteins are considered “complete” because they contain all amino acids (the building blocks that make up protein) the human body requires. Plant foods can only offer “incomplete” proteins, lacking one or more amino acids. But vegans can make up for these deficiencies by combining different plant foods, for example by eating grains together with legumes, vegetables with legumes, vegetables with nuts, grains with nuts and so on. Because amino acids stay in the blood stream for several hours, complimentary proteins don’t have to be consumed all at once but can be distributed over several meals.

Calcium and iron are two nutrients more easily derived from animal products than from plant foods. Green leafy and cruciferous vegetables such as kale, spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are good sources of calcium. Iron can be found in greens too. Vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits enhance iron absorption.

Harder to come by is vitamin B12, which is essential for the health of both blood and nerves. B12 cannot be found in plant foods at all, but the body’s needs can be met by drinking fortified soymilk, eating fortified breakfast cereals or by taking multivitamin supplements.

Iodine is a trace mineral important for the regulation of thyroid hormones. Dietary sources include iodized salt, seafood, eggs, dairy products and crops grown in iodine- rich soil. If these are excluded, smaller amounts are available in green leafy vegetables, potatoes (with skins), seaweed and kelp.

Vitamin D is a nutrient needed for growth and the formation of healthy bones and teeth. It is also harder to get from plant food than from animal products. Thankfully, some vitamin D can be obtained through sun exposure. If sunlight is limited (e.g. you stay indoors or live in Seattle), dietary sources must make up the difference. Fish and fortified milk are good providers, however, if they are excluded, there are only a few plant-based options, such as cauliflower. A multivitamin supplement may be your best solution.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids. They are not made in the body but are important for many bodily functions, including fighting inflammation. Richly present in fish, omega-3s can be supplemented by taking a daily tablespoon of flaxseed or rapeseed oil.

Looking at all the options, it seems very possible to raise healthy children on a vegan diet, especially as they grow older and become adolescents. As long as parents are aware of potential pitfalls and take proper precautions, they should feel confident that they are doing their kids a good service. “The real issue is not whether a child’s diet is vegan or not, or restricted or not. The important thing is whether it’s healthy,” says Amanda Baker, a media spokesperson for the Vegan Society. There are plenty of kids who are not vegan but lack all sorts of nutrients because of their poor diet. It is actually easier for vegans to meet the government’s dietary recommendations for fruits and vegetables servings than for most people, according to Baker.

Ruby Roth, the author of two books about veganism for children, titled “Why We Don’t Eat Animals” (2009) and “Vegan Is Love” (2012), says that introducing children to vegan-style eating has other benefits besides healthful nutrition as well, including instilling interest in environmental and animal rights issues at a young age.

What matters most is that children don’t feel forced to stay within strict dietary limits that don’t allow for some flexibility. If the parents themselves are new to vegetarianism and are trying to get their youngsters to join in, they should start slowly, let’s say, by having one or two meatless nights a week and then progress from there. It’s the same with all diet and lifestyle changes – if they don’t become natural, they won’t last long.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD.

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