Is a Vegan Diet OK for Kids?

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(Clarification: Susan Allen's comments not related to New York case)

- Feeding children a no-meat, no animal product diet, also known as a vegan diet, is "a major challenge" for parents, who must "do every last little bit of homework and watch those kids like hawks" in order to compensate for what's missing in the diet, Susan Allen, assistant director of the International and American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists, said Monday.

Allen did not comment directly about a case involving a New York City couple who lost custody of their infant daughter after placing the child on a vegan diet and allegedly malnourishing her. But the diet itself is attracting more attention as a result of the New York incident.

Some vegan and health nutrition groups insisted Monday the diet is fine for children.

"Vegan diets provide excellent nutrition for all stages of childhood, from birth through adolescence," said Neal Barnard, MD, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a vegan and animal welfare advocacy group.

"Unfortunately, the Swintons reportedly did not provide the first step in good nutrition," said Barnard. "All infants should be breastfed" or given baby formula, he said.

Joseph Swinton, the father of the New York infant, is being held at the Queens House of Detention. Baby "Ice" was taken from Swinton and his wife Silva, both 31, in November. Social workers found the then-16-month-old weighing in at only 10 pounds. Ice was reportedly delivered at home weighing just 3 pounds.

The Swintons, who say they have another baby on the way, reportedly fed Ice a strict diet of nut milk, vegetables, fruits and oils. Some reports indicated the couple may also have fed the infant rotting produce and denied her medical care, allegations the couple denies.

Joseph Swinton told news sources the reason for not nursing the infant was that Silva had smoked marijuana some months before the baby's birth and was therefore not "pure enough."

Barnard, who has reportedly served as a medical adviser to the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), blames parental eccentricity, not a vegan diet, for the child's health problems.

Leslie Bonci, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says a vegetarian diet, whether or not it includes animal products such as milk and eggs, can be healthy for adults and children as long as an extra effort is made to get essential vitamins.

"One of the very important things of being aware of with a vegan diet is it does not provide vitamin B12," said Bonci. Meat and dairy products are typical sources of the vitamin, which is important for cognitive development and nerve functioning.

"It's not impossible to find it in plant-based foods," said Bonci, "but it's not in every plant-based food. So the consumer needs to do a little bit more detective work to make sure they're selecting things appropriately" or else take B12 as a supplement or in fortified cereal.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, B12 deficiency can cause a type of anemia marked by fewer but larger red blood cells. It can also cause other problems, such as nerve damage, walking and balance disturbances, a loss of vibration sensation, confusion, and, in advanced cases, dementia. Because the body needs B12 to make the protective coating that surround nerves, inadequate levels of the vitamin can expose nerves to damage.

B12 deficiency is not an issue for vegetarians who consume eggs and dairy products, according to Bonci.

But Susan Allen, assistant director of the International and American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists, warns that nutritionists are actually divided over whether growing kids can stay healthy on vegan diets.

"There is controversy," said Allen. "Especially with veganism, it's a very difficult challenge ... to get [children] compliant with a [diet] that ensures they meet their needs.

"If you have a family history of sub-optimal health and or a difficult pregnancy ... where the child may start out already in a somewhat compromised position, then that's the last child in the world I want to experiment with," said Allen.

Allen urges parents who are considering vegetarian diets for kids to first get a complete, individualized nutritional evaluation for their child. If, for example, a child has adverse health reactions to dairy products, even a simple no-meat dietary restriction will require extra effort, she said.

For a vegan diet, "It's a major challenge, and you have to have parents that are willing to do every last little bit of homework and watch those kids like hawks and make sure they're supplementing on the side to make up for what's missing in the diet," Allen said.

"When we're talking about kids, good luck," she added. "We can't even get kids to eat normally under regular circumstances; now put them in a vegetarian -- especially a vegan -- situation and forget it. I'm not saying it can't be done. But I'm saying that it typically isn't done."

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

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