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Vegan diet for children: yes or no?

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Vegans avoid any kind of animal products, not just meat and fish, but also milk, eggs and even honey. According to studies, a purely plant-based diet can actually have many health benefits (such as better cholesterol levels through less saturated fats) and is easily possible for adults as long as you eat a varied diet and contain critical micronutrients such as vitamin B12 or D Capsules & Co. supplemented.

But children need more nutrients for normal body growth and healthy brain development. A vegan diet for children is therefore heavily criticized: it is unnatural and some people even describe it as bodily harm. But what risks does a purely plant-based diet really pose for your offspring and what do you have to pay particular attention to if you want to feed your child a vegan diet?

We spoke to Dr. Axel Gerschlauer spoke about this sensitive topic.

What are the benefits of a vegan diet for children?

“The benefits of a wholesome vegan diet for children are well-known and obvious: there are more vegetables, whole grain products, legumes and nuts on the menu and no unhealthy animal fats,” explains Dr. Gerschlauer.

The VeChi Youth Study (Vegetarian and Vegan Children and Youth Study) initiated by the German Nutrition Society (DGE) supports the statements of our expert. She examined the influence of different diets (vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous – i.e. mixed diets) on the nutrient supply of children and young people between the ages of 6 and 18. The small vegan and vegetarian study participants ate food that was particularly high in fiber due to their overall healthier food choices and, in comparison, consumed the least amount of snacks, ready meals and sweets.

Additionally, this 2021 study proved that children who eat a vegan diet are less likely to be overweight, have heart disease, and have lower cholesterol levels. The study was carried out with children between 5 and 10 years old and vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous diets were also compared.

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What nutrients are vegan children missing?

A deficit of essential (i.e. vital) nutrients can occur with all forms of nutrition, and many Germans are particularly deficient in the sunshine vitamin D. Essential nutrients are indispensable substances for the body because we have to get them through food every day because our organism cannot produce them itself can produce. “A vegan diet, by eliminating all animal products, lacks even more nutrients than a mixed or vegetarian diet,” says the expert.

Infants and young children should not be fed a vegan diet due to the risk of nutrient deficiencies

Even vegetarian children’s diets often lack iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. Vegetarian children should be given B12 in particular; the other nutrients can be adequately absorbed through other plant-based products. With a vegan diet, additional calcium, iodine, vitamin B2 and selenium are added. Special attention should be paid to the B vitamins and calcium, as these are mainly found in dairy products.

Also important: Children react differently to a nutrient deficiency than adults, as irreversible nerve damage can sometimes occur in children and this could disrupt growth. “Children are not small adults – this old saying is explained by the much higher sensitivity of still growing organs, including the brain,” says the pediatrician.

What negative consequences can a vegan diet have on children?

“If careful attention is not paid to replacing critical nutrients, a variety of deficiency symptoms can occur,” warns Dr. Gerschlauer. “The best-known consequences are various anemias (anemia), the most serious are permanent nerve damage.”

Vitamin B12 alone, one of the few vitamins that can only be found in animal foods such as meat, fish or eggs, contributes to normal energy metabolism and the development of nerve sheaths. And calcium and certain amino acids, which are only found in dairy products, are responsible for the development and maintenance of healthy bone mass. “The body needs certain amounts of proteins, vitamins and trace elements for healthy growth,” explains the doctor.

The German VeChi Youth study mentioned above also provides similar findings with regard to nutrient deficiencies in children on a vegan diet: the micronutrients iron, calcium, B12, iodine and vitamin D were particularly critical. But children who eat an omnivorous diet (i.e. with meat, milk, etc.) also showed a deficiency in vitamin D. It was also shown that vegan children can absorb vitamin E, B1, C and magnesium better than omnivorous children.

The conclusion of the study was that vegan children who take the correct dosage of nutritional supplements and go to the doctor regularly absorb the micronutrients in sufficient quantities for their health. However, the long-term consequences could not yet be observed in the study and the result must therefore be viewed critically.

At what age can I feed my children vegan without any problems?

Most people choose a vegan diet for reasons of animal welfare and environmental protection, usually when they are teenagers or young adults. And this is actually a good age to start thinking about a vegan diet.

Young people who want to eat vegan are often very motivated and well informed about veganism

Our expert also recommends a vegan diet when you are young: “Highly motivated young people make great patients. The need to be well and thoroughly informed, to eat healthy and wholesome food and to have blood drawn regularly is something you can easily relate to discuss.”

However, the experienced pediatrician strongly advises against a vegan diet for infants.

“Infants are naturally the most sensitive and least forgiving of short-term deficiencies. Breastfeeding mothers who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet should know their iron and B12 levels and ideally check them for normal values ​​before pregnancy.”

The German Society for Nutrition (DGE) also advises against a long-term, purely vegan diet during breastfeeding, pregnancy, as well as in children and adolescents due to the increased risk of nutrient deficiency and the resulting consequences for health. Instead, a vegetarian diet is advocated.

What do I have to pay attention to if I still want to feed my toddler vegan?

“If you want to feed your toddler a vegan diet despite the German specialist society’s recommendations to the contrary, you need two professional groups on the team: pediatricians and qualified nutritionists,” recommends Dr. Gerschlauer. In addition, regular blood samples should be taken so that a nutrient deficiency can be ruled out.

Ultimately, anyone who wants to eat vegan (or their child) should definitely think about the type of diet beforehand in order to prevent possible nutrient deficiencies.

Conclusion: Doctors advise against a vegan diet for infants and young children

Dr. Gerschlauer sums up: “I have great respect for the risk of nutrient deficiency, which is more likely with a vegan diet than with a mixed diet. Also because there are not enough studies and data on vegan children’s nutrition.”

Doctors continue to recommend the so-called “optimized mixed diet” for children, including Dr. Gerschlauer. In other words: A varied diet with a focus on fresh and natural foods, such as fruit, vegetables and grains, in combination with milk and dairy products, as well as fish and meat in moderation and only small amounts of sugar.

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