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There has been a rise in the number of families switching to a vegan diet. There are certainly plenty of reasons why this seems a good idea for both the environment and our health, but what impact does a restrictive diet have on very young children? When making any decision about a diet or lifestyle choice, it must be entered into with all the facts and considerations.  Choosing a vegan diet isn’t a decision to take lightly, especially if making that decision on behalf of a child. The second and final part of this article looks at what deficiencies could be caused by adopting a vegan diet in the early years, what supplements are needed, and many other considerations to be taken into account. 

 

What do deficiencies look like? 

 

Nutrient  Deficiency impact 
Vitamin B3  Extreme deficiencies can lead to the serious condition, Pellagra, which is classified as the 3 D’s: Dementia, Diarrhoea, and Dermatitis – this is extremely rare but does occur in the UK.  
Vitamin B12 

Low levels can lead to anaemia (lack of red blood cells) which makes people tired and weak. 

More seriously, B12 deficiencies in the early years can reduce the function of the central nervous system and even a mild deficiency can cause neurological deterioration. 

Vitamin D  

A lack of vitamin D can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children (this does still exist). 

Weakened immune system 

Low mood which can lead to depression  

Calcium  As with vitamin D, a lack of calcium can lead to rickets in children. Calcium not only supports bones but muscles such as the heart and a deficiency can lead to heart failure in extreme circumstances 
Iodine   Iodine deficiency is the main cause of brain damage in early childhood resulting in impaired cognitive and motor development.  Additionally, iodine deficiency can cause the development of a condition called Goitre (enlarged thyroid gland) 
Selenium   Low levels or deficiency can cause confusion (brain fog) and general fatigue, more serious and prolonged deficiencies can lead to infertility and compromised immunity in response to certain viruses  
Iron  Iron deficiencies can lead to iron deficiency anaemia. 
Zinc 

Reduced growth & development, impaired immunity, low memory, impaired motor skills. 

When coupled with low serotonin (linked to vitamin D deficiency) this deficiency can increase violence, depression, and anxiety. 

Lysine  Deficiencies affect growth and development (slow growth) and can cause general fatigue, dizziness, anaemia, and impact on mood. 
Tryptophan  Low levels of this can lead to anxiety, tension, feeling on edge and disrupted sleep.  Prolonged deficiencies can lead to aggressive tendencies. 
Methionine  Involved in the antioxidant defence system so deficiencies can cause an increase in oxidative stress. 
Omega 3 fatty acids  

Deficiencies can have a negative impact on mood, IQ and behaviour, more serious deficiencies can have adverse effects on brain development and neurodevelopmental outcomes. 

Omega 3 supplements are used to treat symptoms of ADHD and in young offenders’ institutions, such is the significant impact it has on mood, behaviour and emotions.  

Supplements 

Supplementing a diet may be easier said than done! Some children can’t chew a chewy supplement (if they are very young), there may be issues over the coating of the supplements and good-quality ones can be very expensive.  It is necessary to supplement though as nutritional deficiencies can have life-long consequences, so supplement research is essential. 

Other considerations  

If you are considering an alternative diet or must restrict certain elements due to allergies, then this may be possible without going entirely vegan, this would certainly ease some of the restrictions.  There’s no reason why we all can’t enjoy plant-based meals several times a week, indeed this would be preferable for our health and our environment.   There has been a rise in vegan produce, making it a lot easier to shop for ‘meat-free’ alternatives but please shop with caution as just because a product is vegetarian, or vegan, it does not necessarily mean it is ‘healthy’. 

Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) 

The vegan and vegetarian market is no different to the rest of the food landscape.  There is now a wide variety of products aimed at convenience.  Vegans can opt for processed burgers, sausages, pies etc. that may be marginally healthier than their meat alternatives but are still ‘over-processed’ and likely to contain artificial ingredients and ‘fillers’ that make a product convenient but not healthy.  To get the most out of a vegan diet it is necessary to plan, prepare and cook properly and not rely on ready-made options. 

Vegan Children 

Is it possible? Technically yes, with careful planning, consideration of all nutrients needed and supplementation.  But is it easy? No.  

You will spend a large percentage of your time scanning labels and menus until you are confident with your own shopping choices. For fully developed adults, it can be a healthy lifestyle choice. For developing children, it can be incredibly detrimental if not implemented effectively. If you are embarking on a vegan lifestyle for your family, please embrace the full variety of natural plant-based options available, seek professional guidance and remember that many essential nutrients will need to be supplemented. 

Read part one of this series here.

About the author:

Louise is an Early Years Nutrition Consultant and focuses on health and nutrition. Louise also hosts a radio show ‘Food For Thought’ on Teacher Hug Radio.

    About the author:

    Louise is an Early Years Nutrition Consultant and focuses on health and nutrition. Louise also hosts a radio show ‘Food For Thought’ on Teacher Hug Radio.

      About the author:

      Louise is an Early Years Nutrition Consultant and focuses on health and nutrition. Louise also hosts a radio show ‘Food For Thought’ on Teacher Hug Radio.

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