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Is it safe to raise your child on a vegan diet?

Consultant dietitian Sarah Keogh argues children can be raised vegan, but it requires a lot of hard work from the parents.

Sarah Keogh

IS IT SAFE to raise children on a vegan diet?

This is a question that has generated substantial debate over the past year with a draft bill going before the Italian Parliament to jail parents who raise their children as vegans. This follows several cases of children being admitted to hospital with malnutrition after their parents fed them a vegan diet.

Is this because the vegan diet is inherently unsuitable for children or is it due to lack of knowledge on the part of their parents?

The answer is simple, although the diet itself is not. Children can be raised on a vegan diet – and be healthy – but it is difficult to do, and it requires really good knowledge and a lot of hard work on the part of the parents.

Parents also need good, expert support to make sure they are not missing anything crucial. Some key nutrients are missing from a vegan diet that must be supplemented in children (and adults), and there is also an issue with getting sufficient calories into the children on this high fibre diet.

Supplements are needed while breastfeeding

From birth, the vast majority of vegan parents breastfeed their babies, and this is the best approach. However, if for some reason breastfeeding is not an option, then a proper infant formula must be used. Most vegan parents are well aware of this and act in the best interests in their babies.

Sadly, in some cases, parents have used almond or other plant milk in place of infant formula, and this has resulted in some severely ill infants.

It is important to note that vegan breastfeeding mothers do need to supplement their diet to ensure their babies are getting the nutrients they need.

Vegan breastmilk has up to ten times less DHA (an essential omega-3 necessary for brain development and only found in fish and some algae) compared to mothers who are not vegan. Studies suggest that this lack can lead to minor cognitive deficits in vegan babies at one year.

Breastfeeding mothers should also take vitamin D, iodine and B vitamins as supplements.

Children at risk of rickets

As babies start to add solid foods to their diet, parents need to be aware that a vegan diet is lower in fat, and babies need considerably more fat than adults for growth and brain development.

Many vegan parents begin raising their children as vegetarians – allowing milk, cheese and yoghurt and then moving on to an entirely vegan diet when the child is older. This helps to add much-needed fat and calcium into the baby’s diet in the early days.

Parents also need to be aware that a vegan diet is very high in fibre and that this can interfere with the baby or child getting enough calories as they will fill up easily. High fibre can also make it a little harder to absorb some nutrients.

As with babies, children who are following a vegan diet do need to be well supplemented with vitamin D, iodine and B vitamins and parents will need to monitor closely for calcium.

In Ireland, there have been cases of rickets in babies and children following vegan diets due to lack of calcium and vitamin D both during pregnancy and after birth.

Children have very different nutrient needs

Most parents who want to raise their children as vegans are well-educated about the vegan diet and are aware of most, if not all of the issues.

However, I find many parents are not aware of issues around iodine and DHA or have been given incorrect information on this aspect of the diet but are knowledgeable about other nutrients.

Some people are not aware that babies and children have very different nutrient needs than adults so only giving babies or children smaller portions of what adults eat is not the right approach.

Banning is not the right approach

When you look at the research, vegan children eat more fruit and vegetables, meet targets for fibre that are missed by most other children, get enough protein and have higher levels of iron, vitamin A and vitamin C. They are also more likely to be a healthy weight and less likely to be a picky eater.

The issue of raising babies as vegan frequently hits headlines but we don’t often see parents being threatened with jail for raising their obese children on very unhealthy diets full of fast foods and treats and lacking in vital nutrients.

Parents need access to good advice from CORU registered dietitians and GPs, and public health nurses need to be able to refer as necessary. The aim should not be to ban vegan diets in children but to give parents the support they need to do this safely.

To find a qualified dietitian go to www.sedi.ie or www.indi.ie.

Sarah Keogh MSc. BSc. MINDI, is a Consultant Dietitian at the Early Feeding Clinic, Dublin.

Read: New bill in Italy aims to jail parents who impose vegan diet on children

Read: Pasta is NOT actually fattening – or so say (Italian) scientists anyway

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