Features

Veganism: the right diet for children?

Increasing numbers of parents are opting to bring up their children on a vegan diet. But is this advisable – or sustainable? Journalist Radhika Holmström asks a panel of specialists.

Vegan Parenting

Over the past five years, veganism has moved from the fringe to a mainstream lifestyle choice. In April this year, new research suggested that around 3.5 million, or 7%, of the UK’s population now identifies as vegan (Roberts, 2018).

However, is this a diet nutritious enough for young children? One recent study suggests that proteins sourced from plants are far better for heart health than those derived from animals (Tharrey et al, 2018). Others argue that this is all very well for adults, but babies and young children have different nutritional needs and should not have a vegan diet enforced. We asked a variety of specialists, professionals and parents their views.

 

The paediatric dietitian

Aisling Pigott, British Dietetic Association

Aisling Pigott
A vegan diet can be appropriate for anyone – parent or child – but it needs to be well planned. A parent who’s read online that a vegan diet is supposed to be better for children, and just cuts out all dairy, is very different from someone who has thought through their choices and knows what essentials need to be added.

I’d ask a pregnant woman how she was thinking of feeding her baby. Soya milk isn’t recommended before six months, so what are your options? Then, when it comes to weaning, young children of weaning age have particularly high iron requirements. It’s perfectly possible to meet those requirements through a vegan diet, but you do have to be aware of it – make sure the child is meeting the requirements, because non-animal sources contain less iron and they’re harder for the body to absorb.

From a practitioner point of view, the main thing is to ensure that children are getting calcium and iron, and that, as a child comes off milk, know that there are no non-animal sources of vitamin B12 – so that is one thing they will need in a supplement. Some supplements often contain animal-based gelatin, so parents may need help finding alternatives.

There’s so much information online and the nutritional advice that is shared, without any basis, is staggering. As a practitioner, you’re often a worried mum’s main source of nutritional advice, so it’s important to know a bit about it and which organisations you might be able to turn to.

Most paediatric dietitians are keen to share and upskill our health-visiting colleagues, so it’s always worth contacting your local paediatric dietetic team if you need to clarify any points or advice.



Raising vegan children with care 

There’s broad agreement, even from many of those not in favour of a vegan diet, that it can be workable for children. Last year, the British Dietetic Association, working alongside the Vegan Society, confirmed that a well-planned vegan diet can ‘support healthy living in people of all ages’. However, parents must still exercise care bringing up their children on a vegan diet:

  • Supplementation of vitamin B12 is essential
  • Children also need good levels of iron and calcium (which may mean supplementation)
  • Supplements should be vegan-friendly – for instance long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are best in marine-derived form, which means an algae-based supplement is the only non-fish option
  • Vegan children with multiple allergies or other dietary restrictions may need specialist attention
  • Parents focusing too much on removing or restricting foods, rather than health and balance, may need extra attention.

The vegan advocate

Heather Russell, dietitian, the Vegan Society

Heather Russell
If you research and plan carefully, you can provide all the nutrients essential for health and development in a vegan diet for children. In my experience, vegan parents put a lot of attention into thinking about diet and health – it’s likely, too, that they’re quite passionate about breastfeeding [because of the unavailability of dairy-free formula]. It’s certainly possible to plan nutritious meals very easily, and it doesn’t have to be expensive in terms of the nutrition you’re getting for your money, especially if you’re avoiding processed foods.

It’s possible to introduce nutritious first foods without animal products. Soya yogurts, chickpeas and so on are good sources of iron – which weaning babies need – especially if you increase the uptake of iron with vitamin C. If you’re concerned, it’s always a good idea to refer parents on for expert advice; but do ask how they feel about it because, in my experience, a lot of people are very worried about seeing a dietitian because they’re concerned they may not get advice in line with their needs.

Realise that vegans avoid animal use as much as possible. Part of our definition of veganism realises that it’s not always possible to avoid animal use in a non-vegan world – for example, you might have no alternative to using a medicine that contains animal ingredients or has been tested on animals. And formula is a problem as even soya formula contains vitamin D derived from animal fats. However, vegans in the UK are protected under human rights and equality law too, so there’s a duty to ensure they’re not discriminated against, in the same way that people with other beliefs are protected. The vegan parent Tanith Carey, parenting writer and journalist 

I really don’t have a problem with raising vegan children. I’ve been vegetarian for most of my life, and my daughters and I finally became vegan a couple of years ago. When anyone starts arguing with us it’s like water off a duck’s back. There are amazing substitutes for the things we miss – burgers, cheese and all kinds of things. What people don’t realise is how easy it is to be a vegan because there’s so much product development in things such as chocolate and milk. It isn’t particularly expensive either, compared with the price of meat and fish. I give my daughters vegan multivitamins, including iron and B12, just to keep everything covered, but it’s mainly for my peace of mind – I’d be giving them supplements even if they weren’t vegan. And they’re certainly having loads more vegetables and fruit. I’d say to any parent: do your research to set your mind at rest, but know that plenty of children are being brought up vegan. You’re giving your child an incredibly positive start in life, in every way. Among the medical community, many adhere to the old-fashioned food triangle with meat and dairy at the top of it, and there are a lot of vested interests in keeping that triangle going. But that triangle needs to be inverted, with fruit and vegetables at the top. I think that in around five years people will be asking ‘What’s the big deal?’ and in 10 years they’ll be embarrassed about eating meat. I feel that my children are improving the world in so many ways – it’s win-win on every count.

 

The vegan parent

Tanith Carey, parenting writer and journalist 

Tanith-Carey
I really don’t have a problem with raising vegan children. I’ve been vegetarian for most of my life, and my daughters and I finally became vegan a couple of years ago.

When anyone starts arguing with us it’s like water off a duck’s back. There are amazing substitutes for the things we miss – burgers, cheese and all kinds of things. What people don’t realise is how easy it is to be a vegan because there’s so much product development in things such as chocolate and milk. It isn’t particularly expensive either, compared with the price of meat and fish. I give my daughters vegan multivitamins, including iron and B12, just to keep everything covered, but it’s mainly for my peace of mind – I’d be giving them supplements even if they weren’t vegan. And they’re certainly having loads more vegetables and fruit.

I’d say to any parent: do your research to set your mind at rest, but know that plenty of children are being brought up vegan. You’re giving your child an incredibly positive start in life, in every way. Among the medical community, many adhere to the old-fashioned food triangle with meat and dairy at the top of it, and there are a lot of vested interests in keeping that triangle going. But that triangle needs to be inverted, with fruit and vegetables at the top. I think that in around five years people will be asking ‘What’s the big deal?’ and in 10 years they’ll be embarrassed about eating meat. I feel that my children are improving the world in so many ways – it’s win-win on every count.

 

The meat advocate

Carrie Ruxton, dietitian and member of the Meat Advisory Panel

Carrie Ruxton
A vegan diet isn’t an optimal diet for children. Children have much higher requirements for nutrients than we do, and if they’re starved during those windows of opportunity there will be a lifelong impact. Meat, dairy and fish are some of the most important food groups around. I’m not saying children are going to be ill or diseased but you may put your child at a growth disadvantage. The evidence shows that children who drink plant-based milks are shorter than average, for instance (Morency et al, 2017).

Small children need more calories per kilo of body weight than adults; they’re little powerhouses, but they can also be picky or get ill. It’s hard enough even on a varied diet to get everything they need into them. They also need protein – up to twice the requirement per kilo of bodyweight that adults do – because they’re constantly growing, and the quality of that protein is important. Soya is the only natural plant food that has all nine of the essential amino acids that make up a complete protein, so otherwise you have to combine proteins to get the full complement. We have nothing in the UK as extreme as protein malnutrition, but it is much harder as a vegan to give children varied, combined protein.

Lifelong vegans are used to the different buying and cooking to provide everything you need, but people who’ve just turned vegan or want to try it aren’t. As a rule, with the first group you’re trying to minimise the harm to that child because you’re never going to talk them out of it – the second is the one that I think does need to be headed off. But even when parents are implementing the diet properly, the key nutrients of concern in a vegan diet remain vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, iodine and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids… and all of these are found in red meat.

 

The wary professor

Mary Fewtrell, professor of paediatric nutrition, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health

Paediatricians used to say vegan diets should be banned, and in some countries there’s especially strong feeling against veganism from professionals; but in the end you can’t stop people going ahead with veganism, so it’s more important that they should know where to get advice. And then it’s equally important that they actually follow that advice.

There’s not much research on veganism in children, but it’s pretty clear that as a diet becomes more restricted, you’re going to be at risk of losing nutrients and the more attention you have to pay. The problem with vegan diets is that there are some things you just can’t get. As your diet becomes more restricted and you’re cutting out more things, you have to become more informed.

The particular concern in the case of young children and babies is that their brains are growing at such a rapid rate and they’re completely reliant on others. Small babies are at particular risk of B12 deficiency, and if their mothers are deficient too there’s a serious risk of brain damage (Guez et al, 2012). So it’s essential to supplement, and you also have to make sure that babies and toddlers aren’t eating an unsuitable high-fibre, low-fat diet. You need to think about things like milk, which can become a huge issue – people can assume that rice ‘milks’ and similar drinks are somehow the same as formula – and you also have to commit a fair amount of time to planning diet.

Some families don’t engage with healthcare professionals at all – and those, unfortunately, are the most worrying. However, I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that all families are like that.

Overall, with veganism, there are quite a lot of areas where people need advice, and there are certainly many sensible guidelines available. They do need to follow those guidelines because there are risks if you don’t.


Cyrus Pittze Phaniah

Did you know..?

The term 'vegan' was first used in 1944, when the Vegan Society was established in the UK. 

100g of spinach contains 2.7mg of iron. 100g of red meat contains 2.6mg. but the iron in spinach is less easily absorted. (USDA, 2018)

Many wines are not vegan and contain isinglass - a fining agent made from fish bladders.


 

Useful resources


 

References

Guez S, Chiarelli G, Menni F, Salera S, Principi N, Esposito S. (2012) Severe vitamin B12 deficiency in an exclusively breastfed 5-month-old Italian infant born to a mother receiving multivitamin supplementation during pregnancy. BMC Paediatrics 12: 85.

Morency ME, Birken CS, Lebovic G, Chen Y, L’Abbé M, Lee GJ, Maguire JL. (2017) Association between noncow milk beverage consumption and childhood height. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 106(2): 597-602.

Roberts C, comparethemarket.com. (2018). See: https://cdn.comparethemarket.com/market/global/pr-content/cars-v-cattle/cars-vs-cattle--infographics--all_v105.pdf (accessed 17 April 2018).

Tharrey M, Mariotti F, Mashchak A, Barbillon P, Delattre M, Fraser GE. (2018) Patterns of plant and animal protein intake are strongly associated with cardiovascular mortality: the Adventist Health Study-2 cohort. International Journal of Epidemiology (advance article). See: https://academic.oup.com/ije/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/ije/dyy030/4924399?redirectedFrom=fulltext (accessed 17 April 2018).

 

Picture credit | Alamy / Getty / iStock / Shutterstock  

Subscription Content

Click To Return To Homepage

Only current Unite/CPHVA members or Community Practitioner subscribers can access the Community Practitioner journals archive. Please provide your name and membership/subscriber number below to verify access:

Name
Membership number

If you are not already a member of CPHVA and wish to join please click here to JOIN TODAY

Membership of Unite gives you:

  • legal and industrial support on all workplace issues 
  • professional guidance on clinical and professional issues 
  • online information, training and support 
  • advice and support for all health professionals and health support workers
  • access to our membership communities 
  • CPHVA contribution rate is the Unite contribution rate plus £1.25 per month 

Join here https://www.unitetheunion.org/join-unite/

If you are not a member of Unite/CPHVA but would like to purchase an annual print or digital access subscription, please click here

Top