Taking Responsibility for the Health of Vegan Children

peanut butter on toast for kidsNo 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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12 Responses to Taking Responsibility for the Health of Vegan Children

  1. Kyle August 18, 2016 at 11:49 am #

    Is there a book that you would recommend in its place? Was looking forward to this book… bummed to hear this. Thanks for giving us a heads up!

    • Ginny Messina August 18, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

      Kyle, it’s possible that you would still enjoy this book for its recipes and for the suggestions on transitioning kids to a vegan diet. For nutrition information, though, I hope you’ll look at my book Vegan for Life. Other good choices are Becoming Vegan and Simply Vegan.

  2. Chris Pert August 19, 2016 at 6:21 am #

    Excellent review, Ginny. Your review just as easily could have been a review of what is currently going on in the vegan movement when it comes to nutritional information. The pervasiveness of misinformation is one of the reasons there are so many ex-vegans, in my opinion.

    The two things that bug me the most these days are the oil-free madness and vegans claiming broccoli(and other vegetables) has more protein than beef.

    I kept thinking this oil-free nonsense would pass, but I still see it all over the place on social media. Worse still, I sometimes read about a new local vegan society getting founded somewhere in the U.S, and one of the first things they emphasize is that they promote “oil-free veganism”. Animal rights, if they are concerned about them at all, are all too often a minor concern. This often overlaps with “clean eating”.

    I still can’t figure out why anyone continues to claim broccoli has more protein than beef; this is true on a per-calorie basis, but why make this misleading comparison? No one can eat several lbs of broccoli in one sitting to get their protein needs. This is often tied in with misleading comparisons of the mountain gorilla diet. It would make so much more sense to compare legumes, especially soy or lentils with meat, since they actually do have a lot of protein per ounce.

    This kind of misinformation can lead some people to eat nutritionally inadequate diets because they believe all plant foods are “perfect” sources of nutrition. No reason to eat legumes: I can just get all my protein from a leafy green salad! Oils and high fat foods like nuts will give me a heart attack, so I must completely eliminate these foods.

    I wish we didn’t have to keep correcting these myths, but this misinformation not only has the potential to harm people, it may prevent veganism from growing. It’s worrisome that the bad information often seems more pervasive than the good information. Keep doing what you’re doing, Ginny!

    • Lomedin August 22, 2016 at 6:15 pm #

      Hello,
      I have some honest questions about your comments on oil.
      I’d like to know why you seem to imply that humans need oil, that it might have a beneficial effect on us. Would you mind sharing where you get that from? As far as I am aware, the “healthiest” of oils (extra virgin olive oil) will still cause a raise of LDL cholesterol. What benefits do oils have over the raw, unprocessed products they come from (olive oil vs olives, flaxseed oil vs ground flaxseed, for example)?
      What is the nonsense you mention?
      Again, not trying to antagonize, I simply want to find the most accurate information about this issue. All my questions are genuine =)
      Thanks!

      • Carnap August 27, 2016 at 12:22 pm #

        Lomedin,

        There is nothing in oils that are essential…..but the avoidance of oils usually goes hand-in-hand with the avoidance of fat as whole which can be problematic….especially for children. All things equals, one is likely better off getting their fat from whole sources of fats like nuts, seeds, etc……but oils have a variety of useful culinary applications and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to entirely avoid them. For example, vegetables lightly sauteed in oil taste considerably better than some plain vegetables boiled in water.

        If someone has chronically high cholesterol perhaps limiting oils and fats as a whole would be worth trying…..but don’t just assume its helping. Get a follow-up blood test.

  3. Penny August 19, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

    Ginny,
    I do appreciate your expertise, thank you. What do you think of Michael Greger’s How Not to Die and his daily nutrition videos?
    Thanks!

    • Ginny Messina August 20, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

      Penny, I really don’t follow Dr. Greger’s videos and haven’t read his book (it’s just a time issue!) but I’m familiar with his overall recommendations for meeting nutrient needs and I think they are evidence-based and safe.

  4. TXvegans August 21, 2016 at 5:55 am #

    After being a vegan for a number of years myself, my 15 year-old daughter decided to become vegan. There is, for teens on phones, a ton of misinformation out there, but she and I are reading through your “Vegan for Her” and that has been a great mom/daughter read. We both eat more fruit and a little less grain than you recommend, though, because fruit is delicious and an easy snack.

  5. Chris Pert September 1, 2016 at 7:52 am #

    Lomedin,

    I didn’t say or even imply that people HAVE to consume oil like olive oil. Rather, I don’t think most people should have to worry about negative health effects from healthy plant oils and try to avoid them.

    People need fat to be healthy and this is just one way to get it.

    What I consider to be “nonsense” is Dr. Esselstyn’s incessant fear-mongering about fat and olive oil based on very limited research which is contradicted by far more numerous, better quality evidence.

    If I am not going to be swayed by extreme minority Climate Change deniers, I am also not going to be swayed by extreme minority anti-olive oil fear-mongers either.

  6. Cathy October 19, 2016 at 7:34 pm #

    Hi Ginny,

    I’ve recently started following your posts. I’ve been “flexetarian” for about five years now, partly because I have five kids and there is just SO much misinformation about vegan and vegetarian diets with children at different life stages. Yet we would prefer to go completely vegan. So my question to you is whether or not you can point me in the direction of reliable resources. Also, do any of your books address meeting the nutritional needs of children on a vegan diet?

    • Matt January 12, 2017 at 4:07 pm #

      Hi Cathy, I’m (obviously) not Ginny, but her book Vegan For Life does address nutritional needs for both kids and adults. Having had it for years, I still refer to it often.

  7. Nicole Shintani November 1, 2016 at 10:47 pm #

    honestly its astounding how little people know about nutrition in the first place. disappointing to hear about this book though :/ That report by the italian government is really disturbing considering that many modern diets are also highly deficient in other nutrients but people don’t seem to pay that any mind. That being said I also understand that nutrient deficiencies are the largest problem seen in vegans when it is reported, so its very important that people know what they’re doing.

    as someone who was raised in a vegetarian household and is vegan now though, I hardly pay mind to my nutritional intakes beyond ‘oh I should add nutritional yeast to my meal today’ or something and its like second nature to me, and I sometimes easily forget that it isn’t the case for most people. I get confused sometimes when people tell me that their obstacle is knowing exactly their nutrition intakes/amino acid profiles and I get so perplexed because that’s not what it’s like at all for me.

    I do think that better books on diets should be published however. maybe its something you should uptake.

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