Is a vegan diet bad for children? A short while ago, I read this article which had the rather sensationalist, click-baity headline:
Couple Loses Custody of Malnourished Baby After Feeding Him Vegan Diet
The trouble is that without even reading the article, just on the strength of that headline, readers now have a preconceived notion of the thing the publication wants them to focus on - that a vegan diet is bad. That a vegan diet is bad for children.
However, it's not the veganism that's at fault, it's the negligent parents, and their inability or unwillingness to feed their child a healthy and balanced diet.
What the Vice article failed to point out is that there is a vegan nutrition clinic attached to that hospital in Milan, specifically for vegan families (vegans actually make up almost 3% of Milan's population). And that it was this clinic which was trying to help the child.
In the original article, the paediatrician dealing with the family categorically said there is nothing wrong with a vegan diet but that children may need to have calcium and iron supplements (I'd add B12 to that list). He also said that the child was malnourished before the parents put him onto a vegan diet. Seemingly, they discharged the child from the hospital, and flat-out refused to co-operate with the vegan clinic when the staff gave them nutritional recommendations.
They also refused further medical tests, and when the authorities, at the behest of the grandparents, removed the child from the family home, they found a load of homeopathic preparations (don't get me started on homeopathy), as well as a lot of syringes. And 10 cats. None of this sounds like an atmosphere conducive to raising a healthy child.
But it's not veganism that's to blame.
It's curious that given how many children are injured through parental neglect, much of which includes malnourishment, you never see a headline that screams;
Couple loses custody of malnourished baby after feeding him an omnivorous diet.
Veganism is an easy, click-baity target to throw stones at.
(And click-bait is the province of lazy, sensationalist journalism. What happened to responsible and ethical reporting?)
For example, the Vice article also mentions a little girl in Genova but fails to mention that the girl was also undergoing tests because doctors felt that there might be a genetic condition which was contributing to her illness. Also that it was stated that the girl was not dangerously ill but that she was being treated for B12 deficiency; after a couple of days of treatment, her B12 levels were back to normal.
Regarding the mother from Bergamo, who was ordered to cook meat for her child; there seems to be more to this story than meets the eye - not least in that the woman's ex-husband and his parents seemed to be trying to undermine the mother, to the point that they themselves made the child sick. They also received a court order regarding what they were and were not allowed to feed him. But this is all beside the point because the mother and child had been on a macrobiotic diet, not a vegan one, for 10 years prior to the court case. The mother stated that she is not a vegan.
It's also worth noting that out of over half a million vegans in Italy, in 2015-2016, there were only three reported cases of infant malnourishment. Given how much the media loves a sensationalist headline, it's not unreasonable therefore, to surmise that had there been more cases, reporters would have been all over them like a rash.
Statistically however, children raised on a vegan diet eat a wider variety of healthy, whole food, which is usually cooked at home, from scratch, than many of their omnivorous counterparts. Conscientious vegan parents tend to provide their children with nutrient-dense foods which provide for all of their needs. Just as do savvy omni parents. Whereas bad parents are bad parents, regardless of their diet.
(To be clear, I am in no way defending parents feeding their children overly-restrictive diets, I just loathe biased reporting in order to suit a particular agenda.)
What's worse about the Vice article and its ilk, though, is the fact that in focusing on a single issue, it actually detracts from the real problem - that in the case of the Milan baby, two people who, for whatever reason, were clearly unfit to be parents, had put their child's life in danger.
The poor vegan diet they fed their son was a symptom of their parental unsuitability, and not a cause of it.
It may be that they were self-righteous egotists, who thought they knew it all; it may be that they had drug abuse problems; it may be that they were religious nutcases; it may be that they were mentally ill; it may be that they were just completely clueless.
There are myriad reasons as to why they behaved the way they did - we just don't know - yet a lot of people's knee-jerk reactions have been that the parents are automatically a-holes, based on nothing more than being told that they fed their child a vegan diet, and that it led to him becoming severely unwell.
And of course, that veganism is completely wrong for children.
So, Is A Vegan Diet Bad For Children?
According to the NHS in Britain, there is no reason for a child to not thrive on a vegan diet:
The advice on introducing solids at about six months is the same for vegetarian babies as for non-vegetarian babies. However, as your child gets older, there's a risk that a vegetarian or vegan diet may be low in iron and energy, and too high in fibre.
You can make sure your child gets enough iron by giving them:
- fortified breakfast cereal
- dark green vegetables
- beans and lentils
- dried fruit, such as apricots, figs, and prunes
Vitamin C in fruit and vegetables helps the body to absorb iron, so include these at every mealtime.
You can help ensure that your child gets all the nutrients they need by giving them smaller and more frequent main meals, with one or two snacks in between, and making sure they eat a good variety of foods. You'll also need to make sure they get enough calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.
Vitamin drops are recommended for all young children from the age of six months, and should be given until they are five years old.
Whereas according to a paper published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
Approximately 2.5% of adults in the United States and 4% of adults in Canada follow vegetarian diets. A vegetarian diet is defined as one that does not include meat, fish, or fowl. Interest in vegetarianism appears to be increasing, with many restaurants and college foodservices offering vegetarian meals routinely. Substantial growth in sales of foods attractive to vegetarians has occurred, and these foods appear in many supermarkets.
This position paper reviews the current scientific data related to key nutrients for vegetarians, including protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B-12, vitamin A, n-3 fatty acids, and iodine.
A vegetarian, including vegan, diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients. In some cases, use of fortified foods or supplements can be helpful in meeting recommendations for individual nutrients.
Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals.
Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.
You can read the full report here.
Vegans force their beliefs onto their children!
Regarding this notion of a vegan parent forcing their beliefs onto children, what about omnivorous parents forcing their beliefs onto children? If someone eats meat, and feeds it to their child, who has no say in the matter, are they not doing the same as a person who feeds their child meatless meals?
And what about parents of children who express a desire to not eat meat, and yet still force them to eat it?
Why is it more socially-acceptable for a parent to feed a child a healthy, balanced, omnivorous diet, based on their own preferences, than it is for a vegan parent to feed a child a healthy, balanced, vegan diet, based on their ethics? Sometimes, it even seems more accepted to feed a child junk food than to raise them on a healthy whole food plant-based diet.
The bottom line is that a vegan diet doesn't have to be restrictive. Just because someone does not have food from animal origins on their plate, it doesn't mean that there is no room for variety.
There are thousands of fruits and veggies to choose from, a wealth of beans and pulses, loads of grains, and almost infinite possibility to create a hugely varied and nutritious diet (just look at the photos in this post). You just have to be aware of what your body needs, and what you're eating.
However, the same can be said of omnivores too.
What do you think? Is a vegan diet bad for children?
(This article first appeared on my old blog, It's Life Jim)