If you are the grocery shopper in your household, then you may have notice an increased in the number of food products marketed to vegans and vegetarians, which implies an increase in the number of vegans and vegetarians in the world. According to the Vegetarian Times, there are currently approximately 7.5 million vegetarians in the US, and there is an increasing interest in veganism according to Google Trends. This made me think about a potential increase in the number of vegan and vegetarian parents who also want to raise their children on a vegan or vegetarian diet. There is controversy on raising children on vegan or vegetarian diet, and opposers of both diets for children often make the claims about children not consuming enough micronutrients and macronutrients (mainly protein). There have also been a few horror stories of feeding children vegan or vegetarian diets, including one story of a toddler having severe iron deficiency anemia, a systolic murmur, an enlargement of his left atrium and ventricle due to his parents feeding him a vegetarian diet. So, is it safe for infants and children to be raised on a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Two articles from the Journal of American Dietetics Association support the safety of feeding children vegan diets as long as parents plan the diets appropriately. However, both articles note micronutrient deficiency concerns in vegan infants and children for calcium, zinc, iron, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. DHA is also a dietary concern for infants fed vegan diets because vegan mothers have a lower level of DHA in their breast milk. A study conducted in Sweden assessed the dietary intake, macronutrient, and micronutrient status of vegan young adults compared to omnivorous young adults (ages 16-20). The results of the study showed vegan young adults were under the average micronutrient requirements for calcium, selenium, vitamin B12, ribloflavin, and vitamin D. The study has confounding variables including the small number of subjects (60 subjects participated in the study), and there was under reporting on the dietary assessments.
An article review in the European Journal of Pediatrics supports the safety of vegetarian diets in infancy and childhood and states that infants and children fed vegetarian diets have normal growth and development. The article also briefly discussed the the benefits of vegetarian diets, such as having a lower BMI (body mass index) than people who consume meat and plant based foods. However, there is a concern for vitamin B12 deficiency and iron deficiency among vegetarian infants and children. A study conducted in Poland compared the serum iron, ferritin levels, and total iron- binding capacity of 40 Caucasian children. The results of the study show that iron deficiency among vegetarian children is more prevalent than among omnivorous children. Two confounding variables of the study are the small subject size, and lack of information about whether menstrual periods among female subjects was controlled.
Based on the research I have read, it is safe for infants and children to have vegetarian diets if infants and children have regular nutritional status checks and are provided with the appropriate micronutrient supplementation (if needed). I am inconclusive on the safety of vegan diets for children due to the limited current research on vegan diets during infancy and childhood.
- Winckel, Myriam Van, Saskia Vande Velde, Ruth De Bruyne, and Stephanie Van Biervliet. “Clinical Practice: Vegetarian infant and child nutrition.” European Journal of Pediatrics Eur J Pediatr12 (2011): 1489-494. 10 Mar 2016.
- Messina, Virginia, and Ann Reed Mangels. “Considerations in Planning Vegan Diets: Infants.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association6 (2001): 670-79. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
- Messina, Virginia, and Ann Reed Mangels. “Considerations in Planning Vegan Diets: Children.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association6 (2001): 661-69. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
- Larsson Christel and Johansson Gunnar. “Dietary intake and nutritional status of young vegans and omnivores in Sweden.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2002);76:100–6. Web. 10 Mar. 2016
- Gorczyca, Daiva, Anna Prescha, Karolina Szeremeta, and Adam Jankowski. “Iron Status and Dietary Iron Intake of Vegetarian Children from Poland.” Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism Ann Nutr Metab4 (2013): 291-97. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
- MailOnline, Angus Watson for. “How a Strict Vegan Diet Made My Children Ill.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 14 Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
- Planck, Nina. “Death by Veganism.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 May 2007. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
- Giannini, Alberto, Nadia Mirra, and Maria Francesca Patria. “Health Risks for Children Raised on Vegan or Vegetarian Diets.” Pediatric Critical Care Medicine2 (2006): 188. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.