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Is veganism safe for kids?

india Updated: Apr 24, 2010 15:25 IST
Joanna Moorhead
Joanna Moorhead

Can a vegan diet damage your child’s health? Social workers in Lewisham believe it can, which is why they tried to take a five-year-old who appeared to have rickets into care. The boy’s parents have just won their legal battle to prevent this, and they have also succeeded in having their son removed from the at-risk register.

The couple say they don’t eat dairy produce because asthma runs in the family. However, the case raises questions about how difficult it is to nourish a young child adequately on a restrictive diet — and whether the risks involved are too great.

Expert care
Paediatric dietician Helen Wilcock says she tries not to be judgmental about the rights and wrongs of vegan diets for young children, but any parent wanting to raise their child as a vegan needs to be very well-informed. “Vegan children can be deficient in vitamin D, calcium, iron and possibly vitamin B12, so they need supplements,” she says.

Another big issue is that a vegan diet isn’t very energy-dense: you have to eat a lot of it to get enough energy. But children typically don’t eat a lot, so getting enough calories into them can be difficult. Another difficulty is protein. When a vegan diet starts to go wrong, the first symptom is usually that the child fails to thrive or grow properly.

It’s the shortage of calories and protein that kicks in first with rickets (caused by deficiencies in vitamin D and calcium) usually much further down the line. “Families are then referred to a dietician and every parent has been happy to make the changes I've recommended, because first and foremost they want their child to be healthy,” says Wilcock.

But the risks of inadvertently malnourishing a child aren’t restricted to veganism. According to Claire Williamson of the British Nutrition Foundation, one of the mistakes parents can make is to assume, wrongly, that what’s healthy for an adult is healthy for a child. “For example, semi-skimmed milk, low-fat foods and high-fibre foods may be best for adults, but under-fives need full-fat dairy produce, while high-fibre roughage can fill them up too quickly, so they don’t eat enough nutritious food.”

Amanda Baker at the 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.

The reality is that vegan parents are more likely to cook at home, and are likely to be very knowledgeable about nutrition because they have had to make a lot of effort to follow the diet they do. It's actually much easier for vegans and their children to meet the five-a-day guidelines than for other people.”Vegans, she says, are victims of the fact that many people, from doctors and health workers to social workers and other parents, are badly informed.