Bringing Up a Vegan Child — Are the Stakes Too High?

It’s popular.. it’s clean.. and it’s healthy?

With many celebrities and environmentalists actively promoting the benefits of a vegan diet, it’s difficult to not be tempted by it. While the debate on its benefits for fully grown adults is ongoing, there is one particular age group that warrants separate research in its dealings with all kinds of diets, and that is, of course, kids!

The nutritional requirements of children differ from those of adults. They have greater energy needs for their growing minds, bodies and bones. Their appetites are smaller and metabolism faster.

So diets believed to be healthy for grown-ups may not fare so well with kids — often leading to long-term harms to to their health.

Also Read: Why Are So Many Professional Athletes Going Vegan?

What’s Special About The Diet?

Here are a few things that everyone should know before shifting to a vegan diet.

To lay it out simply, those following a vegan diet are against all forms of animal cruelty and abstain from consuming any and all products sourced from animals.

This includes meat, milk, eggs, cottage cheese, curd — and basically any other item of animal-origin.

A diet forbidding children to have milk is bound to raise some eyebrows, duh!

On the face of it, studies and reports on the subject seem to be divided. PETA reports that children raised as vegan are healthier and happier.

A research article on the website of American Academy of Pediatrics, says, “Although there have been case reports of children failing to thrive or developing cobalamin deficiency on vegan diets, these are rare exceptions. Multiple experts have concluded independently that vegan diets can be followed safely by infants and children without compromise of nutrition or growth and with some notable health benefits. Pediatricians working with vegan families must ensure that the parents understand the special nutritional needs of children at different developmental stages and assist them in meeting those needs.”

Others, however, are not too optimistic. In fact, making your kids go vegan could mean jail time in Belgium!

But let’s not go that far. FIT speaks with experts to understand both sides of the argument.

Also Read: Vegan Diets Risk Deficiency of a Vital Nutrient for Brain Health

Should We... and Can We?

Delnaaz T Chanduwadia, Chief Dietitian at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, would not advise this lifestyle. “These are crucial years for a growing child, especially a toddler. A vegan diet eliminates all sources of animal produce, including milk, paneer, fish and egg. While there are options like chickpeas, hummus, grains — how much of these can a child eat? Where will they get calcium, proteins and essentials vitamins like B12 from?”

"“You can surely do fancy things for the kid. But in such a fast and rapid lifestyle, how much of it is actually possible? It requires multiple visits to the grocery and making a menu that keeps the child interested. If health is the concern, then eliminate junk food. But a growing child needs a healthy and wholesome balanced diet.”" - Delnaaz T Chanduwadia

She believes that a vegan diet would deny important nutrients to children, who will have to resort to heavy supplementation for these. And most importantly, there is no actual substitute for milk. “It is a form of complete protein, which a child’s body can absorb completely. When you take milk out, you eliminate a major portion of diet.”

Milk is a form of complete protein which a child’s body can absorb completely.

Sandhya Pandey, Chief Clinical Nutritionist at Fortis Gurugram says that vegan diet could be safe, but it would require an extremely good plan and balance — which could end up being very challenging in the real world. It may also require supplementation as a necessary add-on. Moreover, children consume smaller quantities of food because of their small appetite, which makes it difficult to give them all that they need in tiny portions. “We haven’t been able to combat basic deficiencies like iron. Even vegetarians have B12 deficiencies. With vegans, everything becomes more challenging.”

"“Children are fussy eaters, with varying appetites. They have peers around them. So how practical is it? If parents are not extremely careful about the diet, if it doesn’t have the right combination of nuts, seeds, pulses, it can actually be harmful. The point is, so many of us are already struggling with children and their eating. Even taste becomes an issue. So honestly, I am not too sure. In our country, parents are not too aware about veganism.”" - Sandhya Pandey

Pediatricians agree.

In conversation with FIT, Dr Anupam Sibal, Senior Pediatric Gastroenterologist at Apollo Hospitals Group, believes that unless there is a medical reason to follow a particular diet, food should be wholesome and all -inclusive, with all sub-groups of nutrients coming in.

"“We are always concerned when we hear that a child is being put on a restrictive diet. This could lead to some inborn metabolism errors. Any specialized diet can only be adopted if the child is under supervision of a pediatrician. A vegan diet, otherwise, will run the risk of developing vitamin deficiencies.”" - Dr Anupam Sibal

He adds, “This requires the parents and experts to sit together and make a diet chart. It’s not something parents can sit at home and do.”

You need to sit with a pediatrician or dietitian to make a suitable diet plan.

Dr Srikanth Kona, Consultant Neonatologist & Pediatrician, Continental Hospitals, cautioned against shifting to veganism without complete awareness and planning. Negative diets, that eliminate some or the other form of food, could easily lead to deficiencies — where B12 is a real concern.

"“If someone does want to shift their child, then they need to ensure all essential nutrients like calcium, iron, zinc and B12 are covered in the recommended proportion with soya milk, fruits, vegetables, ragi and nuts. But kids are really picky, so you would have to tackle that. It this protocol is not followed, then there will be problems.”" - Dr Srikanth Kona

It’s quite clear then. Veganism for children is not a strict no-no, but it all depends on how vigilant and careful parents are. If they’re ready to devote that amount of time and effort despite their busy schedules, and if they are in constant touch with a doctor to supervise and monitor the child, then it’s a go-ahead from experts.

Also Read: 9 Things You Need to Know Before Shifting to a Vegan Diet

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