Vegan diet for children: can it be done, and under what conditions?

Vegan diet for children: can it be done, and under what conditions?

It happens that the news reports of children hospitalized urgently for symptoms that make one think of consequences of a vegan diet, that is, completely free of derivatives of animal origin: eggs, dairy products and honey included. Symptoms such as much lower weight than expected, slowed movements, poor reactivity, perhaps more blood tests that show hemoglobin and vitamin B12 deficiencies.


Faced with these cases, it is always natural to ask whether a vegan diet could really be appropriate for a child, especially if a small one, what are the related risks to this type of diet and how to overcome them. The theme is one of the hot ones and tends to split even specialists, among those who believe that children should still be guaranteed, at least in the first years of life, a certain intake of animal products - meat, fish, dairy products - and those who do not see contraindications to a vegan diet starting from weaning. Provided, however, that a series of checks are put in place to assess the well-being of the child, fixing any deficiencies with supplements.


A statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, argues that babies can be eat well on both vegetarian and vegan diets, but points out that it can be difficult to achieve proper nutritional balances when eliminating eggs and dairy products altogether. As if to say: on paper, everything can be fine, but in reality you have to be very careful about what you do.


The possible risks of a vegan diet

So what are the risks of a child who never finds a steak, an egg or a piece of cheese on his plate? "Much depends on the age of the child," emphasizes the pediatrician Andrea Vania, expert for nutrition issues of the Paesena Society of Pediatrics. "For everyone there is the certainty of a vitamin B12 deficiency, a very important vitamin for the development of the central nervous system. Since it is contained only in animal products and we cannot make it, those who do not eat it do not have any. This is a point on which there is little to discuss: a vegan child is by definition deficient in this vitamin, which must therefore be integrated with special supplements ".

Then there is the risk of deficiency of other substances, such as iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin B. "In this case we are not talking about certainties: the levels of these substances depend on various factors, so some children are more exposed to the risk of deficiency, others less" explains the pediatrician. For example, a significant aspect is the intake of fiber. Which are good, sure, but in adequate quantities. If the fiber intake is too high, it reduces the absorption of some vitamins, risking deficiency.

"Younger children, those between six months and two years of age, when complementary feeding is started and completed, have an additional risk, namely that of low calorie intake"adds Vania." The fact is that many plant foods have a low energy density: maybe they satiate, because they build volume and the baby's stomach is still small, but they don't give the right amount of energy needed to grow. The result is that the child can have a growth disturbance".

Vegan yes, but with caution

So, in theory, there is no absolute no to the possibility of a vegan diet. "The vegetarian option, which also includes eggs and dairy products, leaves you more relaxed, and is scientifically considered very valid, especially if we are talking about a Mediterranean-type diet".

On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet - which therefore also provides for a minimum intake of meat, fish, eggs and dairy products - is the one considered most appropriate for children and adolescents by an official document published in 2022 by the Paesena Society of pediatrics. preventive and social (Sipps) and the Federation of Paesena pediatricians (Fimp).

"But with the right precautions, vegan children can also be raised," says Vania. Which, however, to the parents of her little patients she always suggests to wait at least a couple of years before getting to strict veganism. "With a view to nutritional education, it seems to me more appropriate for a child to have the opportunity to try all tastes, just when, between six months and two years, his curiosity towards food, textures, flavors is at its greatest ".

For its part, the pediatrician Sergio Conti Nibali, Head of the Nutrition Area of ​​the Paediatricians Cultural Association, he says he always feels calmer when he meets families who declare themselves vegetarians and vegans, because he knows that they are generally very careful about what they put on the table. "On the contrary, I think we should be concerned above all with families who underestimate the risks of junk foods - sugary drinks, snacks, very elaborate ready meals - often offered as normal daily foods ".

Read also: Vegetarian or vegan diet for children: 11 tips to avoid taking risks

How to approach a vegan diet in complete safety

But if you absolutely want your child to follow a strict vegan diet, what do you need to do to make sure they are safe?

1. The first thing to do is think about it in time, that is, when it is still in the mother's womb. We have seen how important vitamin B12 is for neurological development: well, if the mother is vegan, she is the first to have to worry about her levels of this vitamin, as well as those of other substances important for fetal development, such as iron.

"If Mom doesn't receive adequate supplementation with vitamin B12 throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding, the child who is born could have important symptoms: drowsiness, fatigue, poor growth, difficulty in feeding, paleness, hypotonia, irritability up to real brain damage "explains Conti Nibali.

During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the vegan mother must take adequate supplements of vitamin B12, and regularly perform blood tests to evaluate the levels of this protein.

Other deficiencies could relate to iron, zinc, vitamin D and calcium: the gynecologist should therefore evaluate the situation with appropriate blood tests. "With regard to calcium, moreover, I remember that foods such as whole grains, legumes, cabbage and cauliflower, turnip greens, rocket, radicchio, endive, oilseeds and dried fruit contain adequate quantities: they should not be missing in the diet" states Conti Nibali.

2. During exclusive breastfeeding, if the mother is well looked after and takes the necessary supplements, there is no need to do anything special for the baby. However, if there is a suspicion that the mother does not strictly follow the instructions provided, and even more so if the baby shows some suspicious symptoms, it is necessary to check the vitamin B12 levels of the child as well, and possibly those of the minerals most at risk of deficiency, such as calcium, iron and zinc (a blood test is enough).

Warning: sometimes there is a tendency to deduce the levels of vitamin B12 based on the blood count: if all goes well, it is deduced that vitamin B12 is also ok, but this is not necessarily the case. Often the deficiency of vitamin B12 goes hand in hand with high concentrations of folic acid, which is very present in vegan diets and which makes the blood count "work", masking the absence of B12. An absence which, however, continues to cause damage to the neurological level. Therefore: in the case of vegan children, the only test to be done to evaluate the levels of this vitamin is the dosage of the vitamin itself.

3. If the mother decides to use formulated milk for breastfeeding, she must choose suitable products. "Not vegetable drinks based on this or that cereal, legume or random seed, but milk in a specific formula for infants, which instead of being based on cow's milk will be based on soy or rice" thunders Vania.

4. After weaning, supplementation with vitamin B12 must always be provided for. "Also in this case, we are not talking about random products, of the" natural "type, containing algae or other substances whose real usefulness is doubtful" says Vania. "Instead, you need to seek medical advice on medications or supplements that have the right dosage of the vitamin ".

5. As for the diet, for the little ones prefer energy-dense foods, such as soy derivatives, seitan, quinoa, and don't overdo it too much with vegetables, so as not to have an excess of fiber. In general, in the typical diet of a vegan child, legumes and paired cereals, soy, raw vegetables and fruit, nuts should not be missing. However, pay attention to the salt content of the products used (often too high for children).

6. Provide adequate checks on the growth and health of the child, to avoid sudden degeneration of the situation. In addition to the classic growth checks, it may be useful to periodically do blood tests to evaluate the substances that are more critical: iron and calcium status, vitamin D, vitamin B12. "The frequency of checks is very variable and depends on the age of the child - they will be more frequent for younger children - on his general condition, on the overall evaluation made by the pediatrician also with respect to the ability of the family to follow the instructions given".

7. If in doubt, always consult your doctor. Sorry to say that not all pediatricians are actually experts in nutrition and even less in "particular" nutrition such as vegetarian or vegan ones. It is therefore better to turn to experienced nutrition specialists or nutritionists who work specifically with children.

There are those who believe that, shortages or not, vegan children do not run who knows what risks. After all - it is thought - not all vegan adults take vitamin B12 supplements, yet they do very well. "Adults, however, are less frail than the deficiency of this vitamin: it can take several years to develop neurological symptoms, which are usually recoverable as soon as the situation is rectified," explains Vania. "In children, however, this is not the case: vitamin B12 is essential for growth and early neurological damage is often irreversible, or almost irreversible."

Updated on 23.09.2022

  • vegan diet
  • 1-2 children years
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