A news story from Italy last week outlined the proposal by a Italian parliament member for parents who raise their children on vegan diets to receive jail sentences. This has sparked much debate around the suitability of vegan diets for children.
A vegan diet contains only plants – such as vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits – and foods made from plants. Vegans do not eat foods that come from animals, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey.
In 2008, a position paper from ESPGHAN (European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition) stated that “infants and young child should not follow a vegan diet”. This was based on a study published in the Netherlands in 1994 which found poor growth and nutrient deficiencies (protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and riboflavin) in young children on macrobiotic diets.
However, both the British Dietetic Association (here) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the USA (here) endorse vegan diets for all ages. The British Dietetic Association states “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of life and have many benefits”. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states “When well designed and thought out, vegetarian and vegan intakes provide adequate nutrition for all cycles of life, including both wellness and therapeutic uses for disease prevention and treatment”. “RDNs (registered dietitian nutritionists) should assess micronutrient intake, particularly vitamins C and B12, iron, zinc, and calcium, and macronutrient intake, especially protein and essential fatty acids, in children and adolescents ascribing to a vegetarian dietary pattern”.
In summary, it is safe for children to follow a vegan diet that is well designed to ensure all nutrients are provided. The nutrients to be particularly aware of are protein, fats, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, zinc and calcium. A Registered Dietitian can provide individualised dietary advice.
The Vegetarian Nutrition dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has useful resources for parents here.