Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported about a preschool in Jersey City, NJ that offers only vegan food. The article kind of made me cringe. It made veganism look like a somewhat nutty, somewhat elitist diet that denies kids cupcakes at birthday parties.
But at the very least, it didn’t question the safety of vegan diets. An article in Slate magazine did question it, though. Science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer said that she “couldn’t help but wonder: Can kids actually get the nutrients they need on a vegan diet?”
One way to find out would be to ask actual experts on vegan nutrition. For example, Ms. Moyer could have called Dr. Reed Mangels, who has a PhD in nutrition, teaches at the University of Massachusetts and is an expert on vegan pediatric nutrition. (She’s also raised a couple of vegan kids.)
Or the author could have asked to speak with any other dietitian associated with the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group which is a part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She could have talked to a few vegan parents, like my friend Matt Ball. His daughter Ellen, vegan from birth and now a young adult, excels as an athlete and a scholar without ever having consumed animal protein.
But, the Slate article didn’t focus so much on determining if vegan kids can meet nutrient needs; it’s aim was to show that it’s difficult to do so. And we all know what that looks like. It involves the usual outdated research along with a little bit of nutrition misinformation plus some irrelevant/incorrect observations about vegan eating patterns. Toss in a few silly comments about vegan food (because yes, we all eat bulgur walnut loaf) and you’re good to go.
Here are responses to a few direct quotes from the Slate article.
“One study found that kids who had been vegans before the age of 6 and were marginally deficient in vitamin B12 during this period displayed cognitive problems as teenagers […]”
This is the obligatory reference to studies in children who were raised on macrobiotic diets in the 1980s. It’s no surprise that many of them showed effects of B12 deficiency. This has no relevance to 21st century vegan children who are eating fortified foods (which are far more abundant now than they were 30 years ago) or taking appropriate supplements.
“And even when requirements are met, vegan kids still tend to be a little shorter and leaner than their animal-eating counterparts.”
A “little” shorter, yes. Like about ¼ of an inch shorter. The study in question, which dates to 1989 states that vegan children achieved adequate growth by their school years with insignificant differences in height (1). The fact that they were smaller as toddlers may be because they were more likely to have been breastfed, which results in slower growth compared to formula-feeding.
“Moreover, vegan kids tend to eat less fat than nonvegan kids do.”
Is the amount of fat that omnivore kids eat supposed to be the optimal amount of fat for children? Fat intake of vegan children appears to be around 31% of calories which is hardly a low-fat diet (2). Furthermore, it’s easy enough to boost fat intake of kids with fat-rich foods like nut butters or added fats.
“Vitamin D–rich foods include fortified milk, fatty fish, and eggs, all of which vegans don’t eat. “
Vegan children do drink fortified milk; it’s just not fortified cow’s milk. Vegans get their vitamin D the same way omnivores do: from fortified foods, supplements and sun exposure. Fish should not be considered a reliable source for meeting vitamin D needs and would be particularly inadequate for toddlers and preschoolers (3).
“Research suggests that iron deficiency anemia during childhood ‘results in long-term, and potentially permanent, neurobehavioral impairments.’”
Iron deficiency anemia is certainly a serious public health problem. But it’s not a problem that is unique to vegan children. In fact, for toddlers, excessive cow’s milk consumption is a risk factor for poor iron status (4). Replacing cow’s milk with plant foods can be expected to improve iron nutrition. Yes, parents of young vegans need to make sure they are consuming generous amounts of iron and of vitamin C, which enhances iron absorption. Some research suggests that vegan kids consume more of both these nutrients than their meat-eating peers (2).
“Most animal-based foods contain all of the essential amino acids, but many plant-based foods either contain only small amounts of each or lack some entirely.”
The idea that plant foods are entirely lacking in certain amino acids is absolutely wrong. All plant foods contain all of the essential amino acids. Plant foods are, of course, low in certain essential amino acids. In fact, toddlers and preschoolers may benefit from combining proteins—grains and legumes—at meals even though the practice is not necessary for adults. Examples are peanut butter on crackers, a Tofurky hotdog on a hot dog bun or pita dipped in hummus. It’s not especially complex, even for picky eaters.
“Making matters worse, plant-based foods are rich in oxalate, a substance that inhibits calcium absorption.”
This makes it sound like all plant foods are packed with oxalates. They aren’t. Nor are oxalates the only factor affecting calcium absorption. Which might explain why calcium absorption from some vegetables is twice as efficient as absorption from cow’s milk. And why absorption of calcium from soyfoods, which are rich in both oxalate and phytate, is excellent (5).
The Safety of Vegan Diets
If you read this blog on a regular basis, you know that I’m not one to dismiss concerns about vegan diets. There are challenges to meeting nutrient needs on a diet that is not part of our mainstream culture. Parents of vegan children need to pay attention to certain nutrients. It’s pretty much a fact of life that doing the right thing sometimes takes extra effort.
But the learning curve is not all that significant, and it’s clear that a vegan diet can meet nutrient needs. Vegan kids—and adults—can thrive. We absolutely know that this is true. Which means that for those who have the good fortune to be able to choose what they will eat, the only excuses for eating animals are related to convenience and pleasure. And articles questioning the safety of vegan diets must always depend on outdated research and a poor understanding of nutrition science.
O’Connell JM, Dibley MJ, Sierra J, Wallace B, Marks JS, Yip R. Growth of vegetarian children: The Farm Study. Pediatrics 1989;84:475-81.
Sanders TAB, Manning J. The growth and development of vegan children. J Human Nutr Diet 1992;5:11-21.
Lu Z, Chen TC, Zhang A, Persons KS, Kohn N, Berkowitz R, Martinello S, Holick MF. An evaluation of the vitamin D3 content in fish: Is the vitamin D content adequate to satisfy the dietary requirement for vitamin D? J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol 2007;103:642-4.
Ziegler EE. Consumption of cow’s milk as a cause of iron deficiency in infants and toddlers. Nutr Rev 2011;69 Suppl 1:S37-42.
Weaver CM, Heaney RP, Connor L, Martin BR, Smith DL, Nielsen E. Bioavailability of calcium from tofu vs. milk in premenopausal women. J Food Sci 2002;68:3144-3147.