Millions of individuals worldwide have adopted healthier nutritional choices, such as vegetarianism, in quest of a lifestyle that supports the synergy between human needs and respect for surrounding ecosystems.
The rising awareness of environmental issues among residents and political structures and the battle to eliminate animal cruelty and the health benefits of a diet free of animal products have given a substantial push to the vegan way of life.
This is especially evident in the field of food, where the adoption of a vegan diet
, which excludes all animal-derived foods (meat, eggs, dairy products, etc.), has been gaining ground at the table of families who, not infrequently, have "converted" their entire family, including their children, to vegan food
However, a question emerges at this point: is a vegan diet nutritional enough for a child's proper growth?
Is a vegan diet suitable for children?
The American Dietetic Association, the DGS, and the Portuguese Order of Nutritionists agree that the answer is affirmative. "Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for humans during all phases of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes," according to these three agencies.
Regardless of whether a child is vegan or not, it's vital to remember that a proper nutritional diet is critical for proper growth during the first 1000 days of a child's development, including intrauterine life and the first two years of life.
How can the vegan child get the nutrients needed for development?
Returning to the vegan diet and the question of whether it is suitable for children, it is first necessary to understand how to obtain the nutrients that are normally found in non-vegan meals but are absent or in lower concentration in vegetables, as well as the consequences of their deficiency on growth.
This is the case with iron, a critical vitamin for the metabolic activity mostly obtained from red meat (3 milligrams per 100 grams of meat).
Although a vegan will find the same amount of iron in spinach, the absorption of plant-based iron (the so-called bioavailability) is lower, which means you must eat much more spinach - or any other vegetable - than meat to absorb the same amount of iron.
The iron case can be applied to zinc, magnesium, and calcium with little variation. There is a vegetable alternative for each of these nutrients, which are abundant in animal products (legumes and cereals in the case of zinc, or almond-based drinks in the case of magnesium and calcium). Still, they do not contain the same amount of these nutrients.
Consider vitamin B12, which is found in animal food such as meat, milk, cheese, and eggs and is necessary for DNA constriction, nerve protection, regeneration, and cell regeneration, among other things. Although some plant-based food contains this vitamin, it will never be sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of vegan children.
All these nutrients are essential during the first years of life. While some can be obtained in sufficient quantities from vegetables, others, such as iron, omega-3, vitamin B12, and vitamin D, are extremely difficult to obtain.
Because these deficiencies endanger a child's full development, nutritionists recommend that vegan children supplement their diet with fortified foods.
Thus, protein, essential fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, and vitamins D and B12 should all be prioritized in food planning.
Breastfeeding infants, in particular, should take vitamin B12 and D supplements and have a safe source of iron (supplement or fortified food) at specific times during their first year of life.
Children over the age of 12 months should take vitamin B12 and vitamin D supplements through supplements or fortified foods and drink calcium-fortified vegetable yogurt or drinks in place of milk.
A vegan child can grow and develop in the same way as a non-vegan child, as long as nutritional needs are met properly, as we've seen.
It is recommended that vegan families who wish to extend this diet to their children seek advice from health professionals and take supplements to fortify their diet and provide them with nutrients they could otherwise only obtain through meat consumption.
In short, all of this means that parents should be selective in their food choices and mindful, and that mindfulness and selectivity should be a point of honor when the family goes to a vegan restaurant