With all the different types of diets — gluten-free, paleo, low-carb, vegetarian, raw, veganism — available, it can seem impossible to know what is best for our kids. Some of these diets can be very restrictive for a child and thus get a bad rap, but that doesn’t mean alternative diets, such as veganism aren’t an option for your family.
Veganism is the elimination of all animal products from your diet to minimize harm to animals. The number of vegans in the United States has tripled in the last decade and is expected to continue to rise. While the term “vegan” was officially coined in 1944, there are references by an Arab poet of vegan practices dating back to the 10th century. He happened to live to 83 years old, at a time when the average lifespan for a man was only 30. Nevertheless, debate continues over whether this diet is too limited for growing children.
Veganism has good and bad nutritional implications for children. Vegan diets are higher in fiber than traditional diets, which can help stabilize blood sugar and promote good digestive health. Vegans eat foods rich in folic acid, important for cellular repair, and vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant. Also, vegans usually take in less calories, saturated fat and cholesterol in a typical day, which can reduce the risk of obesity and heart disease.
However, strict vegan diets lack B12 (not found in plant sources) and are low in vitamin D, calcium, zinc and sometimes protein. It is important that parents of vegan children ensure their kids are supplemented in the areas they may be lacking nutrition, either through vitamin- and mineral-fortified foods or by taking vitamin or mineral supplements.
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Breastfeeding vegan moms can also successfully feed a newborn if mom is eating healthy and supplemented appropriately. Studies have found that parents who choose veganism for their families tend to be conscious of the food they give their kids and, with educated decisions, these kids can live healthy lives.
There are many non-vegan diets filled with sugary snacks and junk food that are far less healthy for our kids. Thus, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics regards carefully planned vegan diets as appropriate for all ages, including infants.
Many parents and healthcare professionals worry that kids will experience long-term affects from following a strict vegan diet during crucial stages of growth and development. Several studies show that vegan children in the United States usually meet their recommended daily protein intake. However, plant protein is not as easily digested as animal protein, so parents should take care to provide sufficient protein. Plant protein substitutes include beans, nuts and seeds.
Vegan diets are beneficial as they tend to be high in fruits and vegetables, but parents must be aware that high-fiber diets can lower protein absorption and reduce kids’ overall caloric intake. In addition, lower fat intake, typical of vegan diets, can also reduce calories below the recommended daily allowance.
Kids have higher energy requirements than adults because they are growing so quickly. Some studies have shown that in general vegan children weigh less than their non-vegetarian counterparts. However, with the obesity epidemic plaguing our children today, this may actually be beneficial in the long term. Our children adopt diet practices from infancy and encouraging healthy eating at an early age will help them continue these habits into adulthood.
Finally, vegan diets can have social implications for children. Sometimes vegan children are isolated at school and social functions, like birthday parties, because they cannot eat most of the food available. They may be bullied at school for their choices. Even healthcare professionals can be judgmental of parents’ choice to raise their kids vegan. Parents can help prevent this by bringing vegan-friendly foods to school or vegan cupcakes to a birthday party so their child can participate and even share with their friends.
Veganism also has positive effects on kids. It is eco-friendly and vegans tend to care more about the environment. Veganism can teach children to be more compassionate toward animals. Additionally, vegan families are often more aware of their food choices and what it means for the earth, animals and humankind.
Veganism is a life choice made by some families that should be as respected as other diets like halal and kosher. It is important for vegan parents to seek out information and work hard to provide carefully planned, well-balanced, nutrient-rich diets for their kids. Through education, vegan diets can be healthy and beneficial to kids, from birth to adulthood.
Amanda Fifi, M.D., is a pediatric gastroenterologist at the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.