The increased awareness of environmental issues by citizens and governmental structures, together with the fight to end cruelty to animals and the beneficial effects that a diet without animal products has on our health, have given a strong boost to the vegan philosophy of life.
This is particularly visible in the field of food, where the adoption of a vegan diet, characterized by the absence of any food of animal origin (meat, eggs, dairy products, etc.), has gained more and more space on the table of families who, not infrequently, have "converted" themselves totally, children included, to vegan food.
At this point, however, a question arises: is the vegan diet nutritious enough for the proper growth of a child?
Is a vegan diet suitable for children?
According to the American Dietetic Association, the DGS and the Portuguese Order of Nutritionists, yes. According to these three organisms,
"well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all phases of the life cycle, including pregnancy, breastfeeding, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes".
However, whether a child is vegan or not, it is important to keep in mind that in the first 1000 days of a child’s development, a period that spans intrauterine life plus the first two years of life, a good nutritional diet plays a key role in normal growth.
How can the vegan child obtain the nutrients necessary for their development?
Returning to the vegan diet and the question of whether it is suitable for children, it is important, first of all, to understand how to obtain the nutrients that are normally found in animal food and that are missing or have a lower concentration in vegetables and what is the impact of its deficiency on growth.
This is the example of iron, an important micronutrient in metabolic function and whose main source is 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 that you will have to eat a much larger amount of spinach - or any other vegetable - than meat for the same amount of iron to be absorbed.
The case for iron can be applied without much variation to zinc, magnesium, and calcium. For any of these nutrients, found abundantly in animal products, there is a vegetable alternative (legumes and cereals in the case of zinc, or almond-based drinks in the case of magnesium and calcium), but in no case do they have the same amount of these nutrients.
Take vitamin B12, a vitamin found in animal foods such as meat, milk, cheese and eggs, which is essential for, among other things, DNA constriction, nerve protection and regeneration, and cell regeneration.
Although this vitamin can also be found in some plant-based food, it will never be in sufficient quantity to safeguard the nutritional needs of vegan children.
All of these nutrients are crucial for the first years of life, and although some of them can be obtained in quantity through vegetable sources, there are others where it is very difficult to achieve the adequate content, such as iron, omega-3, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.
Since these deficiencies are a risk to the child's full development, nutritionists advise children on a vegan diet to supplement their diet with fortified foods.
Thus, food planning should pay special attention to protein, essential fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, and vitamins D and B12.
In the specific case of breastfeeding infants, they should take vitamin B12 and D supplements and have a safe source of iron (supplement or fortified food) at certain times during their first year of life.
Children older than 12 months should supplement vitamin B12 and D with supplements or fortified foods and have calcium-fortified vegetable drinks or yogurts to replace milk.
A vegan child can grow and develop, like a non-vegan child, in a fully adequate way, as long, as we have seen, that their nutritional needs are properly accommodated.
In addition to taking supplements to fortify their diet and provide them with nutrients they would otherwise only get from eating meat, it is advisable that vegan families who wish to extend this diet to their children seek advice from health professionals.
In short, all of this means that parents should be selective in their choice of food and remain mindful, mindfulness and selectivity that should also be a point of honor when the family goes to a vegan restaurant for dinner.
If your children follows a vegan diet and are of school age, you can consult the DGS's manual "Vegetarian Food in School Age" here.