Can vegan diets support early years development? – Part One

There has been a rise in the number of families switching to a vegan diet.

There are certainly plenty of reasons why this seems a good idea for both the environment and our health but, what impact does a restrictive diet have on very young children?  When making any decision about a diet or lifestyle choice it must be entered into with all the facts and considerations. Choosing a vegan diet isn’t a decision to take lightly, especially if making that decision on behalf of a child. Louise Mercieca’s two-part article delves into the world of veganism and answers this question. 

Firstly, what foods are removed from a vegan diet? 

  • Meat & any meat by-products (gelatine, lard etc) 
  • Fish & fish-derived products  
  • Eggs & any dressings, cakes, bakes or foods containing eggs 
  • Honey & all products containing honey 
  • Dairy produce, milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, yoghurts etc 
  • Certain additives including but not exclusively E120, E441, E479, E542, E901, E966 
  • Some forms of Omega 3 Fatty Acids (fish-based) 
  • Sweets & Chocolate – many sweets contain gelatine  

The vegan diet is quite restrictive and to follow a nutritionally balanced diet whilst being a strict vegan can be tough but is not entirely impossible.  It’s well-documented that there are many health benefits to a vegan diet but most, if not all, of these studies have been based on adults.   

Health and a vegan diet 

Many studies group together both vegetarian and vegan diets but there are vast nutritional differences between the two.  Vegetarians can still obtain many essential nutrients from animal-derived products such as eggs, which are widely considered to be one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. Vegan diets restrict all products derived from animals. 

Both vegetarians and vegans tend to consume more fibre and less saturated fats, both of which support cardiovascular health.  Plant-based diets are also less likely to lead to metabolic conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes and vegans tend to have lower body weight.  

Early years vegan diets 

With many young children and adolescents now on a vegan diet, we are seeing some causes for concern in relation to nutritional deficiencies during this time of rapid childhood development.   

Researchers at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health steered a study into formative nutrition and vegan diets and reported: – 

“The study found that children following vegan diets were on average 3 cm shorter, had 4-6% lower bone mineral content and were more than three times more likely to be deficient in vitamin B-12 than the omnivores.” 

A different peer-reviewed journal in Pub Med on Vegan diets in young children states: – 

“A vegan diet can be potentially critical for young children with risks of inadequate supply in terms of protein quality and energy as well as long-chain fatty acids, iron, zinc, vitamin D, iodine, calcium, and particularly vitamin B12. Deficiencies in these nutrients can lead to severe and sometimes irreversible developmental disorders”. 

Early childhood is a time of vast nutritional need due to the rapid pace of physical and cognitive development that takes place.  We should never underestimate the role that food plays in this development; please take a look at previous articles on brain and bone nutrition to see the specific requirements for these crucial developmental areas.    

Diets containing but not exclusively animal-derived foods, contain all the essential amino acids required for childhood development.  Excluding these from the diet necessitates the need to supplement with key nutrients that would otherwise be entirely missing from the child’s diet.  

Filling the gaps 

Overall, there are 12 nutrients mainly found in animal foods that vegans might be missing out on. These cover a cross-section of vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and long-chain Omega 3 Fatty Acids.   

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