Providing the right nourishment for children as they grow can be a difficult balancing act. Add to the equation a restrictive diet and it is sure to raise questions about risks to a child’s health.
Many health professionals say the vegan diet for children is misguided and even dangerous. But followers of the diet argue that it is not only a healthy option, but a compassionate lifestyle choice too.
Vegans eliminate all animal products from their diet. That includes dairy, eggs, and even things like honey, jams and any other food product that contains animal-based gelatin.
Social workers in the UK removed a five-year-old from his home and parents care because he appeared to have rickets after being suspected of malnourishment due to a vegan diet.
His parents have since fought and won a legal battle to have him returned to them and removed from the at-risk-register.
The couple claimed they eliminated dairy from their diet because asthma runs in the family but insist they are not vegan, as the social workers claimed, because they eat fish.
Paediatrician dietician Helen Wilcock from the British Dietetic Association, believes any parent wanting to raise their child as a vegan needs to be well-informed.
Vegan children can be deficient in vitamin D, calcium, iron and possibly vitamin B12, so they need supplements,” Wilcock said, adding that vegan diet isn’t energy-dense, you need to eat a lot of it to get the energy you need: “I recommend adding oil to their food, because that gives them more calories.”
The other elephant in the room when it comes to veganism is protein.
“If a child eats meat and fish, it’s easy to get all the right amino acids. But if a child is getting protein from pulses, the problem is that one type of bean might not provide every amino acid, so there has to be a good balance of pulses. In other words, a child who only eats chicken will get all the amino acids – but a child who only eats one type of bean won’t.”
Information is key for parents deciding on this choice for their children, especially since, as Wilcock points out, the first symptom when a vegan diet goes wrong is the child’s failure to thrive and grow adequately – thanks to deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D.
The most challenging times for children following a vegan diet is when they are under five years of age and also for girls, when they hit puberty and their iron levels can drop.
But their are also other risks of malnourishment for children that aren’t restricted to veganism. One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to assume that what is healthy for them is also healthy for their child.
Take for example, semi-skimmed milk, low-fat foods and high-fibre foods. they may be fantastic for adults, but kids under-five need full-fat dairy produce, while high-fibre roughage can fill them up too quickly, leaving them not eating enough nutritious food.
13-year-old Australian boy Mitch has been a vegetarian from birth and became a vegan from four years of age after learning about battery and caged chickens and hens.
Since that time he insisted he didn’t want eggs any more and the whole family has since become vegan.
“My parents were certainly an influence, but I was the one who looked at the magazine and made my own mind up that I didn’t want to participate in the horrible treatment of these hens,” he told reporters.
“I like having peace of mind because I am not destroying the environment or contributing to animal cruelty or impacting my own health negatively. Animals are killed, they are basically tortured. They have to live in small cages with faeces everywhere and then they are killed which is obviously not very ethical.”
Mitch’s nine-year-old sister Imogen agrees, she has even cut out dairy milk chocolate: “It will have milk from a cow and even though you think milk’s OK, they kill the babies so they can have the milk. Milk is just for baby cows,” she added in a recent interview.
Mitch and Imogen’s mother Robyn is a naturopath with a bachelor of health sciences degree. She has researched vegan diets exhaustively.
“Children do have this natural empathy for animals and once children understand that what they are eating is the body of an animal or the milk or the eggs of the animal, they don’t want to be part of it. And they are capable of making that decision,” Robyn said.
However, the Dietitians Association of Australia disagrees.
It doesn’t recommend a vegan diet for children in the first years of their life when it says children are most vulnerable.
The association recommends children in this age group consume at the very least dairy products and eggs. Older children who have a well-planned vegan diet with vitamin B12 and D supplements are ustainable, but parents must be well informed about the dietary requirements of children.