Is Veganism Safe for Children?
By Sharon New, MS, Food Educator and Health Coach, Owner and Creator, Local Food Beat
If we were supposed to eat only plants, seeds and nuts, we’d have small brains and a large gut like a gorilla. But we don’t.
I am often asked what I think of different kinds of diets like the Atkins diet, Paleo diet, Weight Watchers, and, yes, veganism. A vegan diet is one in which a person does not eat any food that comes from an animal, including all meats, eggs, cheese, anything with whey in it, or butter.
In short, I am not a fan of anybody following a vegan diet, but I become truly alarmed when a parent tells me they are considering a vegan diet for their family. Also, I’m not going to address the philosophical issues surrounding veganism, but suffice to say that I am not in agreement with those either. We have large brains and a short gut which implies we need to eat a variety of foods including meat.
Your Child’s Needs are not the Same as Yours
A child has different nutritional needs than an adult. For instance, although we all need fat (see below), fat intake is especially critical to a child’s developing brain and nervous system. Protein is as important, as well. A child who is eating meat and fish is obtaining proper amounts of daily protein along with the majority of 20 amino acids, and nine of the essential amino acids required for a healthy diet. Essential amino acids are not manufactured in the body and must come from a food source.
However, a child who is only eating legumes or soy as their source of protein, simply will not get enough of these necessary amino acids. And as most parents will acknowledge, it can be difficult to get children (especially toddlers) to eat during a good day. Obtaining enough high quality calories for a growing child can be a daily challenge — if you have limited or restricted one of the most efficient sources of fat and protein: animal meats/fats. Please see Drs. Eades at to read more about the importance of animal proteins.
Why are Animal Fats so Important?
Vitamins A, D, B and K are essential to the human health and they need saturated fat for transportation and absorption. Vitamin A and D are especially linked to saturated fat since they are only available in food from farm animals. This is why I advocate to my clients to only drink whole milk, eat whole fat yogurt and other whole (not non- or low-fat) foods.
Twenty five percent of our body’s cholesterol is in the brain and that brain is made up of over 60% fat. We also need saturated (animal fat) to provide cholesterol. We need cholesterol to help sustain life, repair cell walls and to help manufacture nerve cells. It is true that most of the cholesterol is manufactured in our liver because it is just not possible to eat as much as we would need to if we were having to obtain it solely for a food source. That fact should tell you how important it is. In fact, human breast milk is a rich source of cholesterol.
Astoundingly, the American Pediatric Association actually recommends a low-fat diet for children from ages 2 to 5. At least they had the sense not to recommend a low-fat diet for a child under two, but the recommendation for 2-5 year olds is still highly irresponsible. (If they are worried about the obesity epidemic, it would be wiser to tell parents to keep sodas, fast food, sugar and candy away from children in that age group.)
Special Needs of Adolescence
The other crucial time in a child’s life to have a protein-, calcium- and fat-packed diet is adolescence. When girls enter puberty, their iron levels can dip. Unfortunately, it is at this age when the vegan/vegetarian appeal is strongest, rather than for the elderly, when it could make the most sense.
As eating disorders seem to affect females more than males, Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio offers this advice: “An extreme diet [of any kind] can often trigger disordered eating and sometimes even an eating disorder.”
So practicing a healthy nutritional balance is important at all stages, including as a toddler, a small child or as an adolescent. I cannot recommend highly enough the Weston A Price Foundation and the work Mary G. Enig, PhD, and Sally Fallon Morrell have provided regarding the importance of fats. Also, a new book by Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise, is taking the country by storm. I think it may be the definitive book on nutrition in the future. In the meantime, we can use Weston A Price Foundation’s Healthy 4 Life guidelines.
Vegan Doesn’t Mean “Healthy”
Make no mistake that eating a generous amount of vegetables is healthy, but needs to balance the other nutritional requirements. Vegetarianism is often associated with being healthy and some people think veganism is healthiest. But, in fact, most vegans suffer from Vitamin B12 deficiencies, calcium deficiencies, anemia, lower bone density and elevated homocysteine levels (thought to contribute to plaque formation).
Also, another crucial issue for children is the high fiber content of the vegan food choices, as it consists of a lot of grains, breads and legumes. Because fiber absorbs water (like a sponge in the stomach), it can be easy to fill a little child’s stomach up and at the end of the day they haven’t eaten any truly nutritious food with enough protein. An example of common vitamin deficiency in vegan children is rickets. Rickets is a disease where the bones become soft and can deform the legs from a lack of Vitamin D. Twenty-eight percent of vegan children had rickets in the summer and 55% in the winter.
I would like to conclude with the following statement for adults, but not for a child. I believe that following a vegan and/or raw food diet for a short period of time can be healing and useful. For instance, if an individual has just experienced several rounds of chemo and wants to really give the body a break from dairy, gluten, meat, sugar, I think this is a good thing and can be extremely beneficial. But they should begin to work towards a more normal diet after a set period of time (length of time will depend upon the individual).
Sharon New, MS, is a Food Educator and Health Coach who teaches food and health classes throughout the Mid-Atlantic and teaches four very popular workshops: Overfed and Under-nourished; Thyroid and Your Body; Adrenals and Inflammation; and Sugar & your Brain. After working as a paralegal and legal secretary for over 12 years, Sharon made a decision to re-career and in 2002 enrolled in graduate school and in 2004 received a Masters of Science in Health Science. Six years ago Sharon was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After treatment she began to investigate the relation of her thyroid to her adrenals and overall health and the role inflammation plays. As she began to make changes and experience healing, she began to teach. Attend her classes and learn how you can become an advocate for your own health. To schedule a consult with her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dagnelie, et al., “High Prevalence of rickets in infants on macrobiotic diets;” p. 202 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.