Doctor’s Tip: Is a vegan diet safe for young children?
February 12, 2018
Is a vegan diet safe for young children? The short answer is yes, with a few caveats. The science tells us that the healthiest diet is one rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, with no salt, sugar or added oil. This is the diet that humans ate as our genome developed over 20 million years, and our jaw and GI structures are those of plant-eaters. But parents often ask if this diet is safe for young children, because the meat, dairy, egg and fish industries have committed false advertising for decades, convincing us that children need their products to grow up to be big, strong and smart.
One thing we know for sure is that the S.A.D. (standard American diet) is not good for the developing human fetus if the mother is eating it, for children of any age and for adults. The S.A.D. is high in trans and saturated fat, processed carbohydrates, sugar and salt, and oil, all of which are addictive. Most meat contains antibiotics. And since meat, dairy, eggs and fish are at the top of the food chain, they are loaded with industrial pollutants and other toxins compared to plants. Not only are these products unnecessary for optimal childhood health, but they contribute to many childhood diseases such as asthma, and to most of the chronic diseases that eventually afflict many American adults: obesity; diabetes; hypertension; high cholesterol; cardiovascular disease; autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, ulcerative colitis and Lupus; inflammatory diseases such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis; osteoporosis; dementia; and many types of cancer including breast, prostate and colon.
To answer the question posed in the title, let's start with fetal health: We've all heard that pregnant women should avoid alcohol and cigarettes and certain fish. But optimal fetal health is achieved by avoiding all animal (including fish) and dairy products, and by the mother eating a balanced plant-based diet with adequate omega-3. The healthiest food for an infant is breast milk, and authorities such as Dr. Fuhrman recommend breast feeding until 2, with slow introduction of plant-based solids starting at 6 months. The content of breast milk is influenced by what the mother eats, so for optimal infant health the mother should eat a plant-based diet.
Both animal and plant products have all the macronutrients babies, toddlers and older children need: protein, carbohydrates and fat. It's a misconception that a plant-based diet is restrictive — what is restrictive is an animal-based diet, which lacks the fiber; the vitamins and minerals; and the thousands of health-promoting micronutrients that plants contain (vitamins in pill form or added to food products cannot do what natural vitamins in food we eat can do, and can even cause harm).
There are a few caveats:
• It's important that plant-based children eat some nuts and seeds including hemp or ground flax seeds every day, so that their bodies can convert these things to omega-3 (healthy fat). Another good source of healthy fat is avocados.
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• To be on the safe side, a daily omega-3 supplement is wise.
• Vitamin B12 is made from bacteria in dirt, and due to treated water and pre-washed produce, we don't eat much dirt these days. A vegan diet can lead to B12 deficiency, so anyone on a plant-based diet should take a B12 supplement daily.
• This has nothing to do with being plant-based, but most humans are deficient in vitamin D, and starting in infancy should take a D3 supplement (as the human genome was developing, people were running around equatorial Africa mainly naked, and they had much higher vitamin D levels compared to people today).
For more information, including the doses of omega-3, B12 and D3 for various ages, read "Disease-Proof Your Child," by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. Another good source is "How Not to Die," by Michael Greger, M.D., and his website nutritionfacts.org. You can talk to your doctor, but keep in mind that very few doctors, including pediatricians, know much if anything about nutrition (one study showed that people off the street knew more about nutrition than doctors). I didn't either until I read "The China Study" five years ago and watched "Forks Over Knives." Talking to dietitians can be problematic because their national organization is heavily funded by Big Food.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.