The risks and benefits of an animal-free diet for young people, and where to find the nutrients they need.
Veganism is more popular than ever, especially among children and young adults. Many young people are concerned about intensive animal farming practises and worry about the environmental effects of meat production. But is a vegan diet a healthy option for growing children? And what are the potential health risks?
What do vegans eat?
A balanced vegan diet is based around fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, pulses, and legumes. It contains no meat, fish, eggs, dairy produce, honey, or any animal derived ingredients.
Where to find protein on a vegan diet
A common hurdle for new vegans is getting enough protein in the diet. The Government guidelines for child protein intake vary from 14.5g per day for toddlers, up to 55g and 45g per day for 15–18-year-old males and females respectively.
Plants do contain protein, but very few individual plant foods are ‘complete’ proteins. A complete protein contains the right balance of essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) for human health. Plant proteins need to be combined in different ways to make sure all the essential amino acids are included every day.
Good sources of vegan protein include tofu, quinoa, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, and seeds.
Fats are important too
Most plant foods are naturally high in fibre and low in fat – but fats are essential for health. Including plenty of nuts, nut butters, avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, ground seeds, flax oil and hemp oil provides a good range of vegan sources of fats. These fats are vital for energy, brain and nerve function, immunity, and skin health.
Common vitamin and mineral deficiencies
A recent study examining the health risks of children consuming a vegan diet found that vitamin B-12 deficiency, iron-deficiency anaemia, and low vitamin D were more prevalent in vegans than omnivores and vegetarians. Calcium levels can also be at risk unless calcium-rich plant foods are regularly consumed.
Vegans are at risk of deficiencies in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) as these are primarily found in seafood and grass-fed meats. The ‘parent’ fatty acid, ALA (alpha linolenic acid), is widespread in nuts, seeds, and oils, and can be converted to small amounts of EPA and DHA in the body. Some vegans choose to supplement with algal sources of DHA and EPA to maintain optimum levels.
Sources of these at-risk nutrients include:
- Calcium: broccoli, kale, cabbage, dried figs, sesame seeds and tahini, calcium-set tofu, pulses, fortified dairy-free milks.
- Iron: plant-based iron (also known as non-haem iron) is found in blackstrap molasses, dried apricots, tofu, pulses, and dark green leafy vegetables. Vitamin C-rich foods aid non-haem iron absorption.
- Vitamin D: Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D. Vegans can source vitamin D2 from sun-dried mushrooms and fortified non-dairy milks, but these amounts are not enough to support optimum vitamin D levels. Supplementation is highly recommended especially between October and April when the sun’s UVB rays are not strong enough to trigger vitamin D manufacture in the skin.
- Vitamin B12: The only bioavailable form of Vitamin B-12 for humans comes from animal products, and supplementation is necessary when following a vegan diet.
A well-planned vegan diet can provide healthy levels of most nutrients for growing children. Certain vitamins and minerals cannot be found solely in plant foods, and it is advisable to supplement with these nutrients to maintain optimum health.
Desmond, M.A., et al. (2021) Growth, body composition, and cardiovascular and nutritional risk of 5- to 10-y-old children consuming vegetarian, vegan, or omnivore diets, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol113, Iss 6, pp1565–1577, doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa445
Public Health England, 2016. Government Dietary Recommendations - Government recommendations for energy and nutrients for males and females aged 1 –18 years and 19+ years. PHE Publications.