Raising vegan kids

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More people are raising children to be vegan like themselves, according to a recent report in The Sunday Times. Therefore, they should plan their children’s diets carefully.

 


A vegan diet, in which meat, fish, dairy and eggs are excluded, can be healthy, but care is required to make sure it is able to meet a child’s growth needs, dietitians said.

Vegan children may be deficient in certain nutrients, such as vitamins D and B12, as well as calcium, they said.

“The less restrictive the diet, the lower the risk of nutritional inadequacies,” said Dr Han Wee Meng, senior principal dietitian at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

The vegan diet, unfortunately, is more restrictive than other vegetarian diets.

In particular, fruitarian diets or fruit-based vegan diets and raw vegan diets, where only uncooked food is consumed, are not recommended for children, as they may be too low in calories and nutrients, said the United States-based Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

RISK OF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES

A study published last year in Nutrients, a human nutrition journal, which compared the nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diets, concluded that the vegan diet had the lowest total energy and protein intake. However, it had a better fat intake profile and the highest dietary-fibre intake.

Other areas to watch out for: Calcium intake was also the lowest for vegans, and while the intake of iron was high, this came from plant sources and may not be absorbed as easily as iron from meat sources.
Indeed, vegans need about twice as much dietary iron as non-vegetarians, said Ms Lynette Goh, a senior dietitian at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.

Vegan children or adults should consume iron-rich foods on a daily basis, she said. These include firm tofu, fortified foods or soya beverages, dried beans and vegetables, such as peas and lentils, and cooked spinach.

"Combine iron-rich food or supplements with fruit rich in vitamin C, such as orange, kiwi fruit, grapefruit, lemon and lime, to help increase the absorption of iron,” she advised

Secondly, do not drink tea, coffee or cocoa with your meal, as these will inhibit or reduce iron absorption.

Two nutrients which vegans may be deficient in – vitamins D and B12 – have no plant-based equivalents, said Ms Goh.

However, vitamin D can be obtained through sun exposure and fortified foods. As for vitamin B12, which is found naturally in animal sources and important for a healthy nervous system, one can choose fortified breakfast cereals and yeast extracts containing the vitamin, she said.

“As food sources are limited, supplementation may be needed,” she added.

A vegan diet may also be deficient in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. There are good sources of plant protein which can substitute for animal protein, said Ms Goh. These include dried beans, peas (chickpeas and black-eyed peas), soya products, unsalted nuts and nut butters, she suggested.

Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in types of oil such as flaxseed, walnut and rapeseed, as well as ground flax seed, soya beans and chia seeds.

There is evidence to suggest that the omega-3 fats found in these foods may not have the same benefits as they contain alpha-linolenic acid <NO1>(ALA)<NO>and not docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the type found in fatty fish, said Ms Goh.

“However, there is inadequate research to recommend the need for supplements.”

DHA can be obtained from supplements from algae sources or foods fortified with it, she said.

VEGANISM AND PREGNANCY

Pregnant women who are on a vegan diet should ensure they get the appropriate supplementation, said Dr Han.

A lack of calcium and iron in their diet can affect foetal outcome, and a vitamin B12 deficiency has reportedly been associated with irreversible neurological damage in a newborn, she said.

Vegan diets can also be low in the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are important for brain and eye development.

If sufficient care is taken, a vegan diet can be healthy and can help reduce one’s risk of certain diseases.

For instance, vegans have a lower risk of cancer as their diets, which consist of more vegetables, fruit and fibre, are higher in nutrients which help to reduce the risk of the disease. It is also lower in substances associated with increased risk of cancer, such as saturated fat, said Ms Goh.

The key is in planning to make sure vegans – particularly children and pregnant women – do not lack important nutrients, she said.

How to eat enough

A vegan diet may pose some nutritional inadequacies for growing children, especially in iron, calcium, as well as vitamins D and B12, said Dr Han Wee Meng, senior principal dietitian at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

This is because the diet excludes all animal products, including dairy and eggs, where these nutrients are commonly found.

“Getting adequate calories might also be difficult, as vegan diets tend to be based on wholegrain cereals and vegetables,” she said.

Such types of food, being high in fibre, make one feel full more easily. A child may therefore end up eating too little to support the calorie needs for his growth.

This is especially so given the small appetite of children and their high energy requirements, she said. So, include a reasonable amount of healthy fat in a child’s vegan diet, to make sure he gets enough energy, she said. Here is what else to watch out for.

VITAMIN B12

This essential nutrient, which protects a person’s nervous system, is found primarily in animal products. Vitamin B12 deficiency has been linked to irreversible neurological retardation and, in severe cases, brain atrophy (shrinking of the brain). Other physical effects include low muscle tone, delayed motor skills, failure to thrive, sparse hair and abnormal pigmentation.

IRON

Iron stores are depleted by six months of age, which is also about the time when infants start to eat solid food. Nutritional deficiencies can arise if the child is not introduced to an adequate diet.

In fact, the most common deficiency among infants is iron-deficiency anaemia, which can lead to growth and neuro-developmental delays.

Therefore, iron-fortified cereals and other vegetarian sources of iron, such as pureed beans, should be introduced to the child.

Although this mineral can be obtained from plant sources, such as green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals, the type of iron found in them is less easily absorbed by the body. It is also found in smaller quantities. The child has to eat more of these types of food to get sufficient iron.

CALCIUM AND VITAMIN D

Vitamin D is found only in a few types of food (milk, eggs and oily fish). The best way to get it is through sun exposure.

As there is abundant sunshine in Singapore, there is a lower risk of children being deficient in vitamin D, which can result in rickets, compared with children living in temperate climates..

Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium. As children grow, they will need this mineral to build strong bones.

 
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