How Safe Is Vegan Diet For Growing Children?

Veganism, on its own, is a topic of fierce debate. And it becomes all the more polarizing when you add children to the equation. So what do nutrition experts have to say about it?

In their book Pediatric Nutrition, the American Academy of Pediatrics state that "it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans," as long as it is planned carefully. This means you must consult a pediatrician before making your child follow a diet as restrictive as veganism.

As is the case with adults, a plant-based diet can be very healthful. From a lower risk of obesity to improved heart health, one can experience many long-term benefits.

"If it's done well, it's one of the best dietary patterns," said David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. "But all that glitters isn't gold. A marshmallow or jelly bean diet could count as a vegan diet. It is possible to do it badly."

Furthermore, eliminating significant groups like dairy can be dangerous if the missing nutrients are not received from other sources. Earlier this year, a couple was arrested when their 20-month-old daughter was found suffering from rickets after being kept on a strict vegan diet.

Rickets, which is a bone disease, was caused by the lack of vitamin D which is mostly found in dairy, eggs, and fish. In general, vegans are at risk for vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and calcium deficiencies as these mostly come from animal products. Yet, with adequate effort and a bit of compromise, it is not impossible to prevent these deficiencies.

By speaking to a pediatric dietitian, parents can find all the required replacements with a large, varied vegan diet. For example, calcium can be sourced from collard greens, tofu, and fortified foods like calcium-enriched orange juice. But when needed, parents must be open to loosening their restrictions.

It is quite challenging for children to get enough vitamin B12 without consuming milk or eggs. The deficiency of this vitamin, experts warn, can lead to some neurological problems.

"They're at a crucial stage in terms of their brain development, and they have high needs in all of those important fats and soluble vitamins — which are best obtained from animal products," said Sylvia North, a dietitian based in Auckland, New Zealand.

The bottom line is that children can follow a vegan diet but only when done carefully with an expert weighing in. This means maintaining a variety with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. and using fortified products and supplements when needed because vegans are more at risk of nutritional deficiencies.

It also means realistic expectations as veganism is not for everyone — children can find it particularly hard to follow restrictions 100 percent. Aside from physical health effects, one must also consider their emotions. 

"Some children may have feelings of separation when they eat differently than their peers," noted pediatric dietitian Katie Nowacki. "Also, following a restrictive or highly specialized diet may lead to restrictive eating behaviors later in life."