Raising healthy vegan children is challenging. The diet excludes all foods derived from animals including eggs and dairy products, and can deprive a child (or an adult) of some key nutrients. The ones of greatest concern are vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids. You can get B-12 from your diet only by eating meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. A deficiency of this vitamin can lead to abnormal growth, mental retardation, and other health problems. For that reason, I recommend that vegan children take a B-12 supplement in the form of a sublingual tablet (you place it under the tongue), nasal spray or gel. Follow the dosage recommendations on products.
Omega-3s are called “essential” fatty acids because our bodies can’t make them. We have to get them from our diets. A deficiency of these vital nutrients can start before birth. Mothers transfer the omega-3 fat DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) to their fetuses to support brain development. Research suggests that the amount of omega-3s in a pregnant woman’s body may influence a child’s social skills, intelligence and motor abilities. Another omega-3, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is a heart-healthy omega-3 fat that also plays a role in brain function. Omega-3 deficiency can decrease blood flow throughout the body and impair the maturation of capillaries, which in turn can damage the brain. To make sure that they get adequate amounts of these healthy fats, I recommend that vegan children take an algae-derived essential fatty acid supplement. Many products are now available on the market that provide both EPA and DHA.
Vegans also risk not getting enough iron, zinc, and calcium. To make sure your child gets needed amounts of iron, combine foods high in vitamin C (citrus fruits as well as many different fruits and vegetables) with foods containing iron. Alternatively, give your child a vitamin C supplement (100 milligrams) with meals containing iron. Good vegetable sources of iron include cereals, grains, legumes, dates, prunes, raisins and greens. Zinc is found in leavened breads, legumes, nuts and spinach. The best vegan sources of calcium are sesame seeds, collards, broccoli, sea vegetables, and tofu that is coagulated with calcium (check the label to make sure). You also can get calcium-fortified orange juice and soymilk.
Eating and following an appropriately planned vegan diet has become slightly easier since most vegan and vegetarian products, such as soymilk and fake meats, are now fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B-12. Even so, I generally think a vegetarian diet that includes dairy or even fish is better for a growing child than strict veganism.
It is also important to make sure that your child’s diet is well balanced and varied. Don’t assume that a vegan diet is automatically a healthy one, even if you ensure that your child is getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals. It is just as important for vegans to go easy on sweets and processed foods as it is for everyone else.
Andrew Weil, M.D.