Is a Vegan Diet Healthy for Children?
Veganism has been an It Diet for a while now, but hit a rough patch last year, most notably in Italy, where legislation has been proposed — after four, recent, high-profile cases of raising children vegan resulted in severe malnutrition — which, if passed, could jail parents if they restrict children to a vegan diet.
Opposition, as one might expect, is fierce, with critics calling the proposed bill an attack on human rights. Which is more or less true – many vegans view their diets as emblematic of a broader ethos, a way to live, not just a way to eat. But the question is – is a vegan diet healthy for children? Can veganism meet children’s nutritional needs?
The answer seems to be: It can be – but it won’t be easy.
Is a vegan diet healthy for children?
“The vegan diet is a tough diet to follow. I have rarely found adults who can meet their nutritive needs without immense planning or detailed consultations with an expert,” says Dr. Zubeda Tumbi, Ph.D, a clinical nutritionist who often helps clients plan vegan diets. She says her clients need at least two to three sessions to understand how to achieve “nutritional adequacy.”
Dr Tumbi attributes this in part to a huge lacuna in information; people are unaware of which foods offer what benefits, and which foods must be eaten together in order to provide those benefits. For example, she says, people often choose to eat spinach (palak) for its iron content — but amaranth (chaulai) actually has higher levels of iron. But for either, the kind of iron leafy greens contain – ferric iron — is not absorbed by the human gut without the presence of ascorbic acid from citrus fruits or tomatoes. In other words, you could be eating plate after plate of spinach or amaranth, but still get an iron deficiency.
Then there’s the fact that children’s nutritional needs are different from adults. So, even adults who have mastered their own vegan diets may not know how to adapt it into health food for kids. Many adults turn to vegan diets to cut back on fat – but children actually need more fat in their diets than adults do, because their bodies burn through it faster; growing is a constant physical activity on top of any other, and requires energy. (Fat refers to healthy fats, like those found in olive oil and fish, not in cookies and chips.)
Children also don’t need as much fibre – which, as an indigestible part of plant-based food, is a large part of vegan diets — and require much more protein than adults (as much as 2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight, compared to 0.8 gm per kilo for adults).
Meeting these nutritional needs, as well as others, with a vegan diet requires consuming a lot of food. For example, for a 1-year-old to get the proper amount of protein, calcium and iron – three of the most common areas of deficiency with a vegan diet, regardless of age – Dr. Tumbi says, he would have to eat each day*:
- For protein: At least 4 bowls of cooked dal; or, 2 bowls of cooked dal and 1/2 to 1 cup of rice (though Dr. Tumbi notes these foods still lack essential amino acids, making the proteins incomplete)
- For calcium: Around 1 cup (100 grams) of amaranth leaves; or, or 10 cups (1000 grams) of cabbage
- For iron: At least 3 to 4 more cups of amaranth; or a quarter cup soyabeans (though soyabeans can only be eaten sparingly, as they can cause thyroid issues, hormonal imbalances and allergies)
While Dr. Tumbi stops short of saying a child would be unable to cope with eating the amount of food required for a vegan diet to fulfil his nutritional needs, she admits it’s a big consideration for parents.
“The big question now is how will you help the child eat enough to make up these numbers,” she says.
There’s also the question of what other nutrients these foods contain. Vegan diets are, by nature, limited, which means even the most nutritionally efficient version has consequences merely in its repetition.
“The calcium in 1 glass of milk can be equaled by 16 servings of spinach,” says Dr. Lily Kiswani, MD, Integrative Medicine, “but plant sources contain phytates and oxalates, which can block absorption of calcium.”
Too many phytates and oxalates can also bring down iron levels, already an area of difficulty for vegans.
So, can children be vegan? Yes, both doctors say. But the difficulties of balancing a vegan diet for children mean the cons might outweigh the pros. Both doctors advise parents not to try raising a child vegan without working with a trained nutritionist or dietician.
“Some people opt for a vegan diet for ethical reasons, and one has to respect their decision,” Dr. Kiswani says. “But a parent would have to think hard before asking an uninformed child to follow the same principles.”
*Not an example of a complete and nutritionally balanced vegan diet for children; intended as an example only. Both children and adults are prone to deficiencies in vitamins A, D and B12, and omega-3 essential fatty acids, in addition to calcium, iron and protein. Any vegan diet children follow would need to address these dietary gaps as well.