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Can vegan diets be nutritionally adequate for young children?

Interest in vegetarian diets has increased. This may in part be because of the reported health benefits of a plant-based diet, but also because of ethical and ecological concerns.

According to the most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey around 2% of the UK population is vegetarian, which is more than 1.2 million people, with teenagers making up the highest proportion.

But can vegetarian diets be adequate for young children?

To meet the extra demands of growth, children have higher energy and nutrient requirements for their body size compared to adults. It therefore follows that it is important that they are offered foods and drinks that provide adequate energy and nutrients for their needs.

Studies in vegetarian children are limited, but typically show growth as similar to omnivorous peers. A well-balanced vegetarian diet, including dairy products and eggs, can satisfy the nutritional needs of the growing child, but balance is important and alternative protein sources like pulses and nuts should be included rather than an over reliance on cheese and eggs.

Vegan diets in young children

The greater the restrictions in the diet, the greater the risk of nutrition deficiencies.  Vegans, who eliminate all animal products, may have lower intakes of nutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and long-chain n-3 fatty acids. Careful planning is useful to ensure that these nutrients are adequately provided, and in an age where childhood obesity is a major issue, it should not be forgotten that children need adequate energy and protein for their growth and development.

The Vegan Society recommends that vegans include foods fortified with vitamin B12and other nutrients, such as some cereals, plant milks and yeast extracts to help meet their needs, and that supplements can be helpful, especially for vitamin B12and iodine. In the UK, all children from six months to fives years of age are recommended to take a vitamin D supplement.

Parents and carers considering a vegan diet for a child should be advised as to good food sources of nutrients of concern. Some examples are shown below:

·       Energy: avocados and nut/seed butters (such as tahini and cashew, almond or peanut butter), plant/seed oils.

·       Protein: lentils, beans, tofu, soya and soya products, nuts (whole nuts are not suitable for under 5s)

·       Iron: wholegrain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, pulses, bread, fortified breakfast cereals, dried apricots and figs. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron from non-meat sources.

·       Calcium: fortified milk alternative drinks, such as oat, almond and soya drinks (these can be given as a main drink from 12 months) tofu, sesame seeds (and tahini), dried figs and some dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and pak choi.

·       Vitamin B12: fortified foods e.g. some breakfast cereals, unsweetened soya drinks and yeast extracts.

Parents and carers, as well as health professionals, should always rely on reputable information sources rather than general internet information for their nutrition advice on vegan diets.  Popular internet claimed sources of vitamin B12 for instance, including human gut bacteria, spirulina, barley grass and most other seaweeds, have been shown through studies to be inadequate. In addition, raw food offers no special protection from vitamin B12 deficiency.