Young children who are fed a vegan diet without medical and dietary advice carry the risk of a number of nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, and high quality protein — all of which can have potentially devastating health effects, warn experts at the 50th Annual Meeting of the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN).
Studies have shown that children who follow a vegan diet are leaner and smaller than those who consume meat or vegetarian diets.
“It is difficult to ensure a healthy and balanced vegan diet in young infants, and parents should understand the serious consequences of failing to follow advice regarding supplementation of the diet,” said Professor Mary Fewtrell, chairman of ESPGHAN’s nutrition committee.
“The risks of getting it wrong can include irreversible cognitive damage and, in the extreme, death. Our advice is that if parents pursue a vegan diet for their child, they must seek and strictly follow medical and dietary advice to make sure their infant receives adequate nutrition. Both mother and infant should follow advice regarding supplementation.”
The greatest risk to vegan children is that of vitamin B12 deficiency. Foods derived from animals have been shown to be the only reliable sources of vitamin B12, and a deficiency of this vitamin can have devastating effects, say the experts.
Vitamin B12 is essential for the creation of DNA and the maintenance of the nervous system. A lack of it can lead to haematological and neurological disorders, causing damage in young children which can be irreversible.
“The more restricted the diet of the child, the greater the risk of deficiency and this is by far highest in vegan children, but the risk does not stop there,” said Professor Myriam Van Winckel presenting to healthcare professionals at the ESPGHAN conference.
“Vegan mothers who breastfeed also need to be aware that their children can develop vitamin B12 deficiency between two and 12 months because of the lack of reserves in their body at birth, even if the mother is not showing any signs of deficiency herself.”
Babies on vegan diets are also at risk of protein and calcium malnutrition, a problem made worse because parents can be misled by so-called milk substitutes. For example, the terms rice milk, almond milk and soy milk suggest that they are suitable substitutes for milk, but experts say these should be properly labeled as ‘drinks’, because their nutritional value is not comparable to milk.
Maintaining healthy levels of calcium is also vital for ensuring lifelong normal bone density, and rickets has been found in toddlers on a calcium-deficient diet consuming large amounts of non-supplemented soy drink.
In contrast, varied lacto/ovo vegetarian and semi-vegetarian diets are generally considered safe. Although there are very few long-term follow-up studies, these diets do not appear to have a detrimental effect in children. They may even offer some beneficial health outcomes compared to omnivore diets, such as favorable lipid profile, antioxidant status, dietary fiber intake as well as tendencies towards a lower risk of being overweight.
Photo: Experts at the 50th Annual Meeting of the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) are today warning that young children who follow a vegan diet without medical and dietary advice carry the risk of a number of nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and high quality protein, which can have potentially devastating health effects. Credit: ESPGHAN.