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Taking Responsibility for the Health of Vegan Children (Ginny Messina's blog)

No doubt you’ve heard about the legislator in Italy who is proposing to make it illegal to raise kids as vegans. Italian lawmaker Elvira Savino wants to see jail sentences of up to seven years for parents who feed their children only plant foods.
The proposed bill describes veganism as “a diet devoid of elements essential for healthy and balanced growth,” It’s ludicrous. Given what we know about nutrient needs, there is no reason to think that children of well-informed vegan parents are at risk for poor health. It is not especially difficult to create a diet that will ensure adequate nutrition for vegan children.
But, as I’ve said on this website many times, you do need to know a little something about meeting nutrient needs. Shortly after I learned about the proposed law in Italy, I received a review copy of a book on “whole-foods, plant-based” diets for families. I would have been annoyed by the information in this book under any circumstances. It was particularly disturbing, though, because it focused on nutritionally-vulnerable segments of the population—pregnant women and young children. It didn’t help that the book landed in my mailbox at the same time that the media was questioning the safety of vegan diets for kids.
This book has some nice recipes and some very useful guidelines for helping children develop healthful eating behavior. The problem is that it encourages a vegan diet for kids without providing crucial information about nutrition. I felt as though the authors were so focused on the alleged dangers of vegetable oils that they didn’t have time to worry about nutrients.
For example, they offer no information about ensuring adequate iron intake during weaning. Iron deficiency is common among older infants and toddlers and it’s a concern for children whether or not they eat meat. There is currently a movement in the medical community to promote red meat for babies during weaning in order to maximize iron intake. The way to counter that is to demonstrate that there are reliable iron-rich alternatives for vegan babies, not to pretend that iron isn’t even an issue.
The book also provides no discussion of the potential pitfalls of diets that are too low in fat and too high in fiber for very young children, especially toddlers. There is no advice about meeting needs for essential omega-3 fats for children. This is a potential problem on a diet that is very low in nuts and seeds and that doesn’t allow vegetable oils. (While a handful of recipes call for nuts or seeds, they are not included among the recommended food groups.)
The authors put aside any concerns about calcium in the usual way—by referencing faulty and irrelevant ecological data on hip fractures while promoting outdated ideas about protein and bone health.
The book does include a brief discussion of vitamin B12, but the supplement recommended is methylcobalamin (which may not be the ideal form of B12) and readers are directed to consult their pediatricians for guidelines regarding dosages. How many pediatricians have the knowledge that allows them to prescribe appropriate types and amounts of B12 for vegan children? And while this information is readily available in books and on vegan websites, I suspect that the authors were reluctant to point readers to resources that put too much emphasis on nutrition. Their list of recommended resources doesn’t include any books or websites by dietitians who are experts on lifecycle vegan nutrition.
In fact, they seem to have no regard for these kinds of evidence-based resources. They say “Even people on a plant-based regimen, especially parents with children, sometimes worry about getting enough of some nutrient or another, and they will try to target specific foods—such as certain green vegetables for calcium, beans for protein, and so on. If this sounds familiar, you can abandon that kind of thinking. […] In most cases, it is more important to simply eat whole plant foods than spend time focusing on which plant foods to eat.”
That’s a nice philosophy, but nutrition is not a philosophy built around pithy sayings. It’s a science, and when we make observations about how people should eat, those observations should be backed up by actual data.
I’m not saying that we know everything in the world about pediatric nutrition. But we do know that there are real consequences of nutrient deficiencies in children and we know that there are demonstrated ways to avoid those deficiencies. And where knowledge is lacking, it seems like the most responsible approach is to err on the side of caution, particularly where children are concerned.
Maybe we can’t control how every vegan (or non-vegan) parent feeds his or her child. And we certainly can’t control how the media or poorly-informed legislators view veganism. We can have a positive impact, though. One way to be impactful for our fellow vegans and for the animals is to disseminate solid, science-based information on vegan nutrition. And to demand that everyone else, in both the animal rights community and the whole-foods plant-based community, does the same.

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