The Center for Disease and Prevention reports that 16% of American children are overweight and obese, while one-third of the children consume a fast food meal at least once per day. The downfall of proper nutrition and the rise in childhood obesity are forcing the medical field and parents to find a healthier alternative to a meat-based diet.
Among the alternatives is vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is a term that houses a variety of plant-based diets (all that exclude meat). For example, the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes eggs and dairy, while a lacto vegetarian diet excludes eggs. A more restrictive form of a vegetarian diet is the vegan diet that excludes all animal products and byproducts. Although a vegan diet is a healthy diet, many are concerned that it cannot provide adequate nutrition for children. The cause for concern is normal considering the vegan diet’s restrictiveness.
Questions arise such as “What are the health effects?”, “Does a vegan diet provide the right nutrients”, and “What are the precautions of feeding a child a vegan diet?”
Fortunately, medical studies and registered dietitians agree that a vegan diet can have positive health effects on a child and provide excellent nutrition as long as parents are prepared to meet the dietary requirements of the child. Therefore, a child can thrive on a vegan diet, while adding positive health benefits and increasing the chance of preventing cardiovascular and obesity related diseases.
A vegan diet can fulfill the nutritional requirements of a child at all stages of life (infancy to adulthood). During infancy, breast milk is the main source of nutrients for the child. As the child grows, it is important that the parent provide adequate energy and nutrients to the child (children have small stomachs and get fuller fast, thus energy/nutrient dense sources are required). Since the nutritional requirements of a child are more complex than of those of an adult, special attention is given to the nutrients primarily consumed from animal products. Nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, protein, zinc, and riboflavin are crucial to a child’s development, but are common deficiencies in a vegan diet if they are not accounted for through proper planning[2,3]. Parents must be dedicated to insuring their child’s intake of these nutrients.
In a report by the American Dietetic Association(ADA) and the Dietitians of Canada, over one hundred studies prove that a vegan diet exceeds the adequate intake for all of the aforementioned nutrients(in addition to this report, several other positions have been released verifying the results). Protein levels are met in vegan children, but the average consumption of protein is 20%-40% higher than that of a non-vegan child . The consumption rate is higher because only 85% of plant protein is digestible [2, 3]. It is important that child get a wide variety of different protein sources such as soymilk, tofu, nuts, and beans to guarantee that the child gets all essential amino acids [2, 3, 4]. In addition to protein, good iron status can be met in children with the inclusion of iron enhancers (nutrients that will counteract the inhibitors). A vegan child needs twice the amount of iron compared to non-vegan child because of the bioavailability in plant products. Thus, it is recommended that iron sources be consumed with a vitamin C source to help with absorption to fight inhibitors such as phytates, which are commonly found in the vegan diet [3, 4]. Furthermore, there seems to be minimal concern in respect to Vitamin D, a vitamin that must be absorbed via the sun or through fortified soymilk and cereal [2, 3, 4].
Vitamin B12 and Riboflavin, two vitamins once thought to be impossible to attain in a vegetarian diet have shown otherwise. Vitamin B12 is substantially found in animal products and no plants contain large quantities of the active form, thus it must be consumed through fortified products like cereals or soymilk [2, 3].
Vegan adults tend to be deficient in B12, hence the importance of providing children with the proper amount of B12 (some provide children with a supplement) . Riboflavin shares the same myths as B12, yet clinical studies have shown similar or exceeded intakes of riboflavin in vegans. Sources of riboflavin are leafy vegetables, mushrooms, fortified cereals, and avocados [3, 4].
Unfortunately, calcium and zinc lack significant research in the vegan diet, but the research that is available has varied results. Calcium and zinc absorption are affected by phytates, which are in many plants, hence the absorption may or may not be influenced[3,4].It is suggested to use fortified products such as soymilk in addition to plants that are great calcium sources.
Vegan children tend to be lower in calcium than non-vegan children are, but there does not seem to be an adverse affect on their health (bone health is favorable due to soy products). Zinc levels appear to be similar to non-vegan children. It is suggested to consume zinc-laden sources with protein sources to aid in absorption [3, 4]. As stated before, the bioavailability of nutrient is favorable for vegan children with proper planning. It is important to monitor the child’s growth, eating habits, and overall health to ensure that the child is getting adequate nutrition.
In addition to the ability to get all of the nutrients, a vegan diet provides children excellent health benefits that may prevent diseases related to obesity and the cardiovascular system. Gary Fraser, author of Diet, Life Expectancy, and Chronic Disease : Studies of Seventh-Day Adventists and Other Vegetarians provide in-depth information that correlates with many medical studies reviewed by the ADA. He examines the effects of vegetarianism on chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, while highlighting the added benefits of consuming a plant-based diet. He is rigid in his information and does not hide any issues that may arise from being an herbivore.
Obesity is a roaring epidemic in the United States (and other parts of the world) that is increasing in children. In studies of vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists (SDAs) and non-vegetarian SDAs, the vegetarians had a lower BMI than their counterparts. Moreover, as meat was added to the diet, the BMI increased. Although it is not proven, there may be a correlation between meat consumption and BMI [1, 4]. Fraser agrees that vegan children may have lower BMI’s due to increased physical activity and the fact that most vegan children are smaller than non-vegetarian children are [1, 3, 4]. Factors that may account for the decreased BMI is the higher consumption vegetables and fiber, and a lower intake of saturated fats [3, 4]. The probability of a vegan child being obesity is considerably smaller compared to a child who is not vegan.
Those who practice veganism are at less of a risk for cardiovascular disease. Studies show that “31% of vegetarian men and 20% of vegetarian women” are less likely to die from heart disease than their no vegetarian counterparts are . Both the ADA and Fraser agree that vegans are preventing heart disease because of lower blood cholesterol levels. Many reasons present themselves: vegans tend to consume higher amounts of unsaturated fats and the vegan diet is cholesterol free [1, 3, 4]. Both of these lead to high HDL levels and low LDL levels, meaning the child will have less “bad” cholesterol in his/her bloodstream[1,4,5].
Other factors that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in vegetarians (vegans included), is the increased intake of vitamins and antioxidants. Antioxidants protect cells against free radicals. There has been recent research on phytochemicals, which are found in plants and may exert the same properties as antioxidants(I.e. anti-inflammation, cell proliferation and reduced plaque formation)[1,4].Vitamins E and C, which are abundant antioxidants in the vegan diet helps reduce the levels of LDL,also.[1,4]. Fraser warns that the studies point to veganism as the reason for much of the reduced risk, but states that it is important to understand that other factors like physical activity influence the risk as well.
Finally, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables such as the vegan diet will reduce the risk of Type II Diabetes. Children are becoming more susceptible to diabetes due to increased BMI’s and change insulin sensitivity to food, thus it is crucial to take preventative measures to reduce the risk of diabetes. Significant research proves that a lower BMI and high fiber consumption greatly reduce the risk of developing diabetes. As previously mentioned, a vegan diet is laden with fiber and the majority of vegans maintain a lower BMI as those that consume animal products [1, 3, 4]. Another study on Seventh Day Adventist vegetarians provides concrete evidence that meat-free diets reduce the risk for diabetes. More shocking is the statistic that stated non-vegetarian men are 80% more likely to develop diabetes than vegetarian men are .
A vegan diet will boost a child’s immune system, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity, as well as teach children how to eat right. It is important to teach children healthy eating habits, as well as reduce their risk of diseases related to nutrition. Many consider a vegan diet “weird”, but that is because it is still new to the playing field of diets. Veganism is a healthy lifestyle for humans of all age and is considered a powerhouse diet that will stave off disease. In addition to being healthy, it houses the possibility of preventing many chronic diseases. Chances of obesity related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are greatly reduced in a meat free environment. As more medical institutions promote a meat-free lifestyle and more families become educated about the benefits of veganism, American society will see a decrease in childhood obesity and the related chronic diseases. Addressing the nutrition of children in American society today will help prevent the diseases of tomorrow.