The health benefits of a vegan diet in adults are highly controversial. In kids, a vegan diet could be catastrophic.
A new research study from Finland shows that a vegan diet creates numerous deficiencies in babies and toddlers.
While I’m not surprised by the findings, I hope that the plant-based diet folks wake up to the long-term risks of such a diet in young and developing human beings.
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The Ethics of Vegan Diet Studies on Children
With most nutrition-related research, you take at least two groups of people and put them on different diets, comparing one against another. Sometimes, a control group that does nothing is also included.
In some studies, researchers test nutrition protocols on healthy adults to see if their health improves or gets worse. For example, researchers compared a high-protein diet to an iso-caloric Standard American Diet and found the high-protein diet led to much healthier outcomes.
In other studies, researchers test nutrition protocols to see if they improve health in unhealthy people.
While it’s common to put grown adults on varying nutrition protocols, such research is considered unethical in children. The risk to their long-term health is too significant.
Research Study Design
Instead of creating a study where researchers assign people to specific diets, they found people in the Finnish population already following those diets.
The three groups in the study included:
- Babies born from women who ate vegan diets throughout their pregnancies, who breastfed for 15-30 months while eating vegan, and then fed their children a vegan diet for at least a year after breastfeeding.
- Same as above while eating a vegetarian diet.
- Same as above while eating an omnivorous diet.
Compared to omnivorous children:
- Children on the vegan diets had lower vitamin D status even though vitamin D intakes were the same between groups
- Children on the vegan diets had lower protein and essential amino acid intake
- Children on vegan diets consumed almost no EPA, DHA, or cholesterol
On a positive note, the vegan children did have higher folate intakes.
Why are these nutrient deficiencies so alarming?
Each of the nutrients mentioned above plays a significant role in human growth and development. I highlighted some of the effects of deficiencies below and link to longer-form articles on the nutrients where available.
Note: The quoted sections below come directly from the research study’s paper: Vegan diet in young children remodels metabolism and challenges the statuses of essential nutrients.
Vegan children in our sample had lower status of vitamin D than omnivores despite all vegan families reporting daily use of supplements that reached the daily vitamin D intake recommendations, and the blood samples having been collected during the high peak of seasonal variation in vitamin D status.
Even though the vegan children consumed equivalent amounts of vitamin D as the omnivorous children, their blood levels were lower.
Cholesterol is necessary for vitamin D production, so it’s no surprise that their no-cholesterol diets led to lower vitamin D.
The following are health problems associated with low vitamin D levels.
- Increased susceptibility to viral infection including the flu and coronaviruses
- Increased risk of insulin resistance and diabetes
- Heart disease
- Low bone density, fractures, and osteoporosis
- Reduced IQ at ages 4-6 in those who had mothers with low vitamin D during pregnancy
- Atopic dermatitis
- Decreased adrenal function
- Decreased strength
- Increased body fat
- Lower birth weight
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type I Diabetes
Protein and Essential Amino Acids
The dietary data of vegan children in our sample indicated protein intake of 10–16 E%, which is in line with recommendations. However, the untargeted metabolomics suggested that their overall circulating essential amino acid pools were systematically lower than those of omnivores, specifically those of branched‐chain amino acids. Similar findings have been reported in adult vegans.
They also affect immune function and mood.
A growing child needs significantly more high-quality protein per pound body weight than an adult due to his or her accelerated growth rate. The concentration of essential amino acids in protein determines protein quality (a.k.a. Biological Value).
It’s a fact that animal foods are higher-quality protein sources than plant foods are, so it’s not a surprise that vegan babies and toddlers don’t get as much total protein or essential amino acids.
- What are the Health Benefits of Essential Amino Acids? How Do They Work?
- Why is a high-protein diet best for health and fitness?
Omega-3s: EPA and DHA
Vegan diets are rich in the essential fatty acids ALA and LA, but practically devoid of the ALA derivatives DHA and EPA, long‐chain n‐3 fatty acids of which DHA is needed for visual process and synaptic functioning.
Many vegan food labels boast the health claim “Rich in Omega-3s.” Though technically accurate, the health claim is hugely misleading.
Many plant foods are rich in ALA, which is an omega-3 fatty acid. But humans must convert it into DHA and EPA, or they won’t derive the benefits omega-3s are known for. We are terrible at converting ALA because our metabolism isn’t made for a vegan diet. We need to get DHA and EPA from eating fish or supplementing with fish oil.
Not surprisingly, the vegan children had no DHA in their blood when measured.
DHA is essential for brain development and visual function.
The markedly low cholesterol in vegan infants and children in our study raises the question of whether such levels are healthy, as cholesterol is essential for cellular growth, division, and development of physiological systems due to its major role in the synthesis of cell membranes, steroid hormones, bile acids, and brain myelin.
Contrary to what statin commercials would have you believe, cholesterol plays a critical role in human health.
Most importantly, cholesterol is necessary to:
- build cell membranes
- produce estrogen, testosterone, and adrenal hormones
- maintain a functional metabolism, including the production of vitamin D
- produce bile acids, which allow you to digest fat and absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Could Feeding a Kid a Vegan Diet be Child Abuse?
In my opinion, a vegan diet could be considered child abuse.
Children are not mini-adults. They need more calories and overall nutrition per pound than their fully-grown parents. From this study and an analysis of the nutrients found in a vegan diet, a vegan diet likely leaves children nutrient-deprived.
In a child still developing his or her brain, nervous, skeletal, muscular, immune, cardiovascular, respiratory, and lymph systems, such nutrient deprivation could lead to catastrophic effects later in life.
That said, since this study flies in the face of the current plant-based diet dogma, I doubt many people will become aware of these problems.
If you are as alarmed as I am by these findings, please share this blog post with others.