Can a vegan diet damage your child’s health?
Social workers in Lewisham, south London, 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 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 — but they’re not vegans, as social workers claimed, because they do eat fish.
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.
Paediatric dietician Helen Wilcock, a member of the British Dietetic Association, says she tries not to be judgmental about the rights and wrongs of vegan diets for young children, but parents wanting to raise their child as a vegan need 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.
‘I recommend adding oil to their food,” Wilcock says, ‘because that gives them more calories.” Another difficulty is protein.
‘If a child eats meat and fish, it’s easy to get all the right amino acids. But if a child is getting protein from pulses, the problem is that one type of bean might not provide every amino acid, so there has to be a good balance of pulses. In other words, a child who eats only chicken will get all the amino acids, but a child who eats only one type of bean won’t.”
So information is the key, but do families really try to raise their children on vegan diets without being adequately informed?
Sometimes, says Wilcock, they do — often because they are taken in by misleading information on the internet. And 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, she says, with rickets (caused by deficiencies in vitamin D and calcium) usually much further down the line.
The most challenging time for parents raising vegan children is when they are under five, although another crucial time is for girls around puberty when iron levels can dip. 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 fullfat dairy produce, while high-fibre roughage can fill them up too quickly, so they don’t eat enough nutritious food.”
Amanda Bakerat the United Kingodm’s 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. ‘Vegan parents have to plan their child’s food carefully. Of course there are pitfalls, but there are pitfalls for all parents and for any diet.”
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.
‘We’ve written to every doctor’s surgery in an attempt to make sure there’s better information out there. Parents can come in for mistaken pressure from people with genuine concerns, simply because the issues aren’t properly understood.” —