Young children who follow a vegan diet without medical and dietary counseling carry the risk of lacking a number of nutrients, including vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and high quality protein.
Since parents are the principal providers of what their infants eat, vegan parents often wean their children onto the family’s diet. It is important to note that atypical diets are more likely to cause problems of malnutrition in children than in adults due to their greater nutrient requirements. Thusly, without the appropriate care of children, issues may arise that could cause concern health care professionals.
Mary Fewtrell, a professor of Childhood Nutrition at UCL, warned that although vegan diets are perfectly healthy, they can cause serious health problems in babies and toddlers, if their parents don’t make sure the child is receiving all the necessary vitamins.
The first big issue is that a vegan diet isn't very energy-dense. One must eat a lot to obtain enough energy. The complicated aspect of it is that children typically don't eat large quantities of food, so getting enough calories into them can be difficult.
Another difficulty is the lack protein. "If a child eats meat and fish, it's easy to get all the right amino acids. But if a child is getting protein from pulses, the problem is that one type of bean might not provide every amino acid, so there has to be a good balance of pulses. In other words, a child who only eats chicken will get all the amino acids, but a child who only eats one type of bean won't", stated the pediatric dietician Helen Wilcock, a member of the British Dietetic Association
While appropriately planned vegan diets can satisfy the nutrient needs of infants, a lack of communication can hinder the identification of infants at risk. It is important for parents to receive education from reliable sources of information, such as pediatricians, nutritionists, and nurses.
For example, during the introduction of a vegan infant’s first foods, the use of unsweetened fortified soya milk in cooking is recommended. It contains as much calcium as cows’ milk and a similar amount of protein.
Beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy mince, fortified soy yoghurt, and tofu are just a few examples of other good sources of protein and zinc. Also, foods containing high levels of fiber tend to be very filling and can cause the feeling of fullness before one has obtained the right number of calories needed. Avocados, nuts, and dried fruits are great energy-dense foods to include that contain fiber and do the body well.
Amanda Baker at Vegan Society says the real issue isn't whether a child's diet is vegan or not, or restricted or not, the important thing is whether it's healthy. "There are plenty of children who are eating a bad diet, and they're not vegan," she says. "Vegan parents have to plan their child's food carefully. Of course, there are pitfalls, but there are pitfalls for all parents and for any diet”.
LatinAmerican Post | Luisa Fernanda Paez
Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto