A controversial new children’s book, “Vegan is Love,” has put author Ruby Roth on the defensive, publicly debating psychologists and parents about the morality of a vegan lifestyle for children. But for most parents, a better question to ask might be, is it safe for my kids to be vegan?
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group’s website, a 2010 poll estimated that 7 percent of 8- to 18-year-olds in the U.S. never eat meat; 3 percent of this age group was classified as strict vegetarians and 2 percent vegan. The VRG estimates that there are about 1.4 million 8- to 18-year-old vegetarians.
Whether the decision to go vegan is a result of parental influence or solely the child’s beliefs, young vegans may be at risk of deficiencies in the following nutrients:
- vitamin B12
- omega-3 fatty acids
When asked if a vegan diet is safe for kids, Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., and a nutrition lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, unequivocally states, “Yes, of course.”
Mangels elaborates: “If a child on a vegan diet is eating varied and mixed sources of foods, they will be as healthy as non-vegan kids.”
What about the protein?
Again, it’s all about eating a wide variety of foods, says Mangels, who has two vegan kids ages 17 and 20, both of whom have been vegan since they were young children.
“Kids’ protein needs are actually quite low,” says Mangels. “I’d wager that the typical vegan child gets more protein than what’s called for. When I calculate kids’ diets, their parents typically say in disbelief, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s all they have to eat to get the protein?’
“Protein requirements are based on a bodyweight basis,” continues Mangels. “3-year-olds don’t have the same protein needs as a linebacker.”
What about the quality of vegan protein sources?
Nutrition students are often taught in class that the best sources of protein are from animal-derived sources, with egg whites being the gold standard, ranking a perfect 100 on an often-used scale of protein bioavailability, a measure of how easily the body absorbs protein.
Mangels, however, says that certain protein biological value scales are not accurate, especially those touted on online bodybuilding forums. A more accurate system of measuring protein, according to Mangels, is the World Health Organizations’ Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), in which soy protein scores a 1.0, the same amount as milk and egg protein.
“Parents should make sure their children are getting a wide variety of protein sources like nuts, seeds, and nut/seed butters,” says Mangels.
And what about vitamin B12?
Mangels admits that B12 “really only occurs in reliable amounts in animal products.” But with today’s abundance of choices for vegans, getting enough B12 shouldn’t be a problem for kids, says Mangels. “Kids can take either a B12 supplement or eat fortified foods such as soy, plant milks, breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast and fake meats.
Nursing mothers who are strict vegetarians should pay close attention to making sure their newborns are getting adequate vitamin B12.
In a case study in Clinical Pediatrics, a 7-month-old male presented with lethargy. The child was exclusively breast-fed from birth by a mother who was a strict vegetarian. The study revealed macrocytic anemia and methylmalonic acid in the urine, consistent with vitamin B12 deficient anemia.
The study concluded, “The infant responded well to supplementation with B12 alone and was developmentally normal by 11 months of age.”
Have a vegan child? Pay attention to the following signs….
“Does the child appear sickly or healthy? When the child is sick, does it get over it fairly quickly; when they get injured do their tissues heal in a normal amount of time? How is the child functioning and sleeping; are their bowel movements regular … do they have lots of energy that you would expect from a normal child?” Lippman asks.
At the end of the day, Lippman suggests, “A vegan diet may work for some kids but for others it won’t.”