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Vegan diet for children - this should be taken into account

Vegane Kinderernährung

Vegan diet

A vegan diet refers to the exclusive consumption of plant-based foods. This form of nutrition has become increasingly popular in recent years, so that over 1% of the German population follows a vegan diet (1).

Avoiding animal foods is usually voluntary and conscious, with the main motives for adopting a vegan diet being ethical reasons, aspects of ecology and sustainability, and health reasons (1).

Due to the increasing popularity of the vegan diet, the selection of vegan substitute products is also increasing. These include meat, milk, egg and fish substitute products as well as special dietary supplements and fortified foods (2).

Nutrition for children

Infants and (small) children belong to a population group that has special nutritional requirements. For them, nutrition has a major influence on their growth, development and physical well-being. Especially in the first few months after birth, the digestive organs, metabolism, immune system and neuromotor development are still maturing. Due to growth in infancy and childhood, there is a high need for energy and nutrients, whereby the optimal supply of nutrients is essential for physical and mental development, concentration and performance, as well as strengthening the immune system. The focus is on a balanced diet (3).

Critical nutrients of a vegan diet

First of all, it should be noted that the risk of nutrient deficiency/undersupply is highest in population groups with particular demands on nutrient supply. This group includes infants through to adolescents, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. To maintain normal physical functions, growth and development, they have specific nutritional requirements (4).

In a vegan diet, the particularly critical nutrient is vitamin B12 (1, 4). It is available in a form available to humans almost exclusively in animal foods. For this reason, people following a vegan diet are encouraged to substitute vitamin B12 in the form of dietary supplements (1).

Other potential critical nutrients include protein, long-chain fatty acids (DHA and EPA), riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin D, calcium, iron, iodine, zinc and selenium (1). On the other hand, a plant-based diet provides a good supply of vitamin C, vitamin E, thiamine, folate, magnesium, potassium, fiber and secondary plant substances (1).

Critical nutrients of a vegan diet in children (VeChi Youth study)

There are still insufficient data and studies to provide precise statements regarding the health and nutritional status of a vegan diet in childhood (2). Nevertheless, existing studies show that children who eat a vegan diet experience normal growth and development. Isolated studies indicate that some children are thinner or shorter than the reference population (2).

According to the leaders of the VeChi Youth Study, the results show that with a mixed, vegetarian and vegan diet, the supply of the main nutrients and most vitamins and minerals is sufficient for the majority of participants. This also applies to vitamin B12, which is sufficient for most children and was supplemented by 88% of the participants. There were no significant differences in energy density and intake between diets. Furthermore, the supply of vitamin B2 and iodine was critical in all forms of nutrition, as were the intake data for calcium and vitamin D. However, these results cannot be transferred to the entire German population and are therefore limited in their conclusions (5).

Benefits of a vegan diet

If a vegan diet includes all essential nutrients in the appropriate amounts and many nutritionally beneficial nutrients, then a vegan diet can have long-term positive effects on children's health. Nutritionally favorable is defined as a dietary pattern that is high in fiber and low in added sugar and saturated fatty acids. This nutrient pattern may be associated with a low prevalence of overweight, obesity, and a low risk of cardiometabolic diseases in adulthood (4).

Furthermore, a high consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables reduces cardiovascular diseases and diabetes mellitus type 2 thanks to the fiber they contain. The secondary plant substances they contain reduce the risk of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, ischemic heart disease and cancer. The holistic lifestyle must always be taken into account (1).

This should be taken into account when following a vegan diet in childhood

When feeding children, it is essential that all nutrients are consumed in the prescribed amounts (1). Optimal nutrient supply can be supported with fortified foods or taking supplements. Regular medical checks of the supply status are important so that any deficiencies can be identified early and counteracted with nutrient preparations. If necessary, advice from a qualified nutritionist should be sought (1, 4).

Food recommendations

The table below provides food selections that match critical nutrients, although these recommendations are not specific to children (1). Food is also always available as a nutrient package and therefore not only provides the specified critical nutrients, but many more.

Critical nutrient Plant-based nutrient suppliers
protein Legumes, (nuts), (whole grain) cereals, potatoes
EPA, DHA Foods enriched with microalgae oil
Vitamin D Some edible mushrooms (champignon, chanterelles), foods fortified with vitamin D
Riboflavin Oil seeds, (nuts), legumes, various vegetables, whole grains
Vitamin B12 Foods fortified with vitamin B12
Calcium Vegetables (broccoli, kale), (nuts), legumes, meat substitutes based on soy, tofu, mineral water (> 150 mg/L calcium), foods fortified with calcium
iron Legumes, oil seeds (nuts), whole grains, vegetables (spinach)
iodine Iodized and fluorinated table salt, seaweed
zinc Whole grains, legumes, oil seeds, (nuts)
selenium Cabbage, onion vegetables, mushrooms, asparagus, legumes, Brazil nuts

Diploma

In summary, a vegan diet for adults can contribute to a health-promoting diet if it is well planned and consists of balanced foods, as well as supplementation with vitamin B12 and, if necessary, other critical nutrients. Parents who want to feed their children vegan need sound nutritional knowledge, although nutritional advice from qualified nutrition specialists is strongly recommended. The child's supply status with all (critical) nutrients should be checked regularly (1, 4). In addition, the current study situation should always be critically monitored so that the diet and supplementation are critically questioned and, if necessary, adjusted accordingly.

Sources

(1) Richter, M., Boeing, H., Grünewald-Funk, D., Heseker, H., Kroke, A., Leschik-Bonnet, E., Oberritter, H., Strohm, D., Watzl, B . for the German Nutrition Society (DGE). (2016). Vegan diet. Position of the German Nutrition Society (DGE). Nutrition Survey 63(4) , 92-102. Erratum in: 63(05): M262.

(2) Weder, S., Hoffmann, M., Becker, K., Alexy, U., Keller, M. (2019). Energy, macronutrient intake, and anthropometrics of vegetarian, vegan, and omnivorous children (1–3 years) in Germany (VeChi Diet Study). Nutrients , 11 (4), 832.

(3) DGE. (n.d.). Nutrition of children and adolescents. DGE. [online] https://www.dge.de/gesunde-ernaehrung/gezielte-ernaehrung/ernaehrung-von-kindern-und-jugendlichen/ [last accessed: December 14, 2023].

(4) Richter, M., Kroke, A., Grünewald-Funk, D., Heseker, H., Virmani, K., Waltz, B. for the German Society for Nutrition eV (DGE). (2020). Supplementing the position of the German Society for Nutrition eV on vegan nutrition with regard to population groups with particular demands on nutrient supply. Nutrition survey, special issue 5, 64-72. DIO: 10.4455/eu2020.044.

(5) DGE. (2020). Vegan, vegetarian, mixed diet. Press release. 14. DGE experience report [online] https://www.dge.de/presse/meldeen/2020/vegan-vegetarisch-mischkost-nur-geringe-differentiated/ [last accessed: December 14, 2023].

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