Because of the prevailing idea in our culture that vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy, more and more kids are being raised from birth (or even conception!) without meat on their plates. If you’re considering a plant-based diet for your family, read on. Here’s my take on why kids need to eat meat to grow into healthy adults.
Is a Plant-Based Diet Safe for Your Children?
Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the USDA have stated that vegetarian and vegan diets are safe during pregnancy, but critical analyses by several researchers have questioned whether these recommendations are based on sufficient evidence.
Even though vegetarian and vegan diets have a reputation for being “healthy,” there are consequences to choosing a meat-free diet for your family. Find out why your kids need to eat meat to thrive. #nutrition #optimalhealth #chriskresser
One review remarked that “the evidence on vegan–vegetarian diets in pregnancy is heterogeneous and scant,” suggesting that more research is needed to answer the question of whether they are, in fact, safe during pregnancy. (1)
On meat-free diets for children, another review stated that “the existing data do not allow us to draw firm conclusions on health benefits or risks of present-day vegetarian type diets on the nutritional or health status of children and adolescents.” (2)
The limited studies on meat-free diets in children have severe shortcomings, including:
- Comparing meat-free diets to the typical unhealthy Standard American Diet (SAD), which is far from healthy
- Healthy-user bias (those who choose meat-free diets are also more likely to engage in “healthier” behaviors like exercising regularly, not smoking, etc.)
- Upper-class bias (higher-income families are more likely to choose meat-free diets and, in general, have better health)
- Small sample sizes
- Inaccuracies in diet reporting, which is a huge problem in nutrition research
Your Kids Need Nutrient-Dense Foods to Thrive
I know—it can be a struggle to get your kids to eat the “right” foods. With the processed junk that passes as “kid’s food” today, it’s even more difficult to ensure that your child eats a healthy diet. Research shows that the more restrictive the diet in children, the greater the risk for nutrient deficiencies. (6) When meat, which is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available, isn’t part of a child’s diet, these risks are even greater. Meat-free diets are unavoidably low in nutrient density, by favoring whole grains and legumes over animal products, making it harder for kids to get adequate nutrition. (7)
The prevalence of B12 deficiency is 67 percent in American children, 50 percent in New Zealand children, and 85 percent in Norwegian infants who have followed vegetarian or vegan diets their entire lives. (8)
Studies have shown that kids raised until age 6 or 7 on a vegan diet are still B12 deficient years after adding at least some animal products to their diet. (9) These children demonstrated persistent cognitive deficits 5 to 10 years after switching to a lactovegetarian or omnivorous diet.
One study found an association between B12 status and measures of intelligence and memory, with formerly vegan kids scoring lower than omnivorous kids. (10) Devastating case studies have reported B12 deficiency in young vegan children that have led to neurological damage and developmental delays. (11, 12, 13)
Learn more about Vitamin B12
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B12 deficiencies are increasingly common—and often undiagnosed. Find out how to make sure your family gets enough of this nutrient.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is virtually absent from vegan diets and often severely lacking in vegetarian diets. Along with calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K2, vitamin D is critical for proper bone growth and remodeling, especially during infancy and childhood. During the first year of life, human bone mass nearly doubles. (14) Massive bone growth occurs from birth to adulthood, during which a child will grow from approximately 20 inches to 60 or 70 inches or more. Even with adequate calcium intake, bone turnover markers were lower in child vegetarians compared to omnivores, increasing the risks of impaired bone growth and lower peak bone mass during adolescence. (15, 16)
Low nutrient intake extends beyond vitamin B12 and D. Other case studies have attributed hypothyroidism in young children to a maternal and/or childhood vegan diet, possibly due to insufficient iodine. (17, 18)
DHA and EPA
Compared to breast milk from omnivorous mothers, breast milk from vegan mothers had lower levels of DHA and EPA, which are vital for brain development, especially in the first year of life, when a baby’s brain literally doubles in size. (19)
Iron is already the most common nutritional deficiency in children. Because meat-free diets require at least 1.8 times the iron intake due to lower iron availability in plant foods, iron deficiency is more common in vegetarian and vegan children than in omnivores. (20, 21, 22, 23) Children on vegetarian and vegan diets also can have lower intakes of vitamin A and zinc. (24, 25)
Your Kids Need to Eat Meat—Not Supplements
Can you just give your meat-free kid a multivitamin and call it a day? Unfortunately, probably not. Research indicates that regular supplementation with iron, zinc, and B12 does not mitigate all of the serious developmental risks in fetuses and children. (26) Nutrient-dense whole foods, like meat, are the best sources for vitamins and minerals.