News of children sent to hospital with severe forms of malnutrition due to a vegan diet imposed by their parents has begun to multiply. The vegan ideology, and its most uncompromising version (fruitarian), is affecting more and more people, usually from highly educated groups. These food choices may be understandable, even if not justifiable, for adults, but forcing children to adopt a diet lacking in animal-derived products may expose them to severe risks for their health and psycho-physical development.
We are talking about ideology because, after being weaned, herbivores in nature are anatomically and physiologically equipped to digest vegetable fibers and proteins with the help of bacteria and protozoans that produce both proteins having a high biological value, like those contained in meat as well as the especially indispensable B-group vitamins. Being omnivores that developed in a food niche where meat had a fundamental role (we were hunter-gatherers for millions of years), humans cannot synthesize these essential nutrients. Thus if they eat only vegetables, they must use artificial food supplements whose efficacy in terms of nutrient bioavailability cannot be compared to that of foods.
Moreover, this forcing, also psychological, that makes children dependent on the food supplement industry from a very young age is evident.
Therefore, if you decide to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, a greater commitment in the food options is required. The diet requires larger quantities of food (which is not always possible) to enable the adequate intake of all nutrients and it must be balanced from an energy point of view to guarantee the body enough energy for metabolism and muscular activity.
As for newborn babies, the WHO has published guidelines for feeding children that recommend the daily intake of foods of animal origin starting at six months of age, pointing out how diets based on vegetables cannot satisfy children’s food needs (especially as regards Fe, Zn and vitamin B12) unless you use food supplements or “fortified” products.
It is like saying, substitute nature with synthetic products! According to WHO, besides vitamin B12, a lack of iron may also be a problem. “Therefore it is particularly important that children’s diets contain iron derived from such foods of animal origin as meat, poultry, or fish.
Pulses (peas, beans, lentils, and walnuts) combined with foodstuffs rich in vitamin C to help iron absorption may be an alternative, even if they cannot completely substitute foodstuffs of animal origin” and great quantities would be needed.
A broad survey of the literature existing on this topic (Van Winckel et al., Europ. J Ped., 2011) addresses pediatricians, warning them against both the less restrictive egg-milk-vegetable diets and especially against the more intransigent vegan ones that, in order to guarantee nutritional levels comparable with those of omnivorous children, must be carefully formulated and assessed (the authors acknowledge that vegan children often have severe growth deficiencies).
Vegan parents therefore (and vegetarian ones, to a lesser extent) must think twice before applying their diet ideology to their children. Eliminating products of animal origin like milk, meat, fish and eggs may have very bad effects on children as demonstrated by the recent events mentioned at the beginning of this comment.