Vegetarian Diet in Childhood: Is It Indicated?

Tempo de Leitura: 4 minutos

The growing popularity of the vegetarianism among young populations in industrialised countries have resulted in an increase in parents asking pediatricians for a partial or totally free feeding of animal feed for their babies. As a result, there is an important impact on health, such as neurological and cognitive growth and development, both in childhood and in adulthood.

Therefore, it is known that a proper and balanced diet needs to provide by itself, without any supplements, all macro and micronutrients to fully satisfy, at any stage of life, all nutritional needs and promote the best possible psychophysical development. So it is essential to include a diversified and balanced intake with all food groups proportions in terms of quantity and frequency of consumption. Come to think of it, is the vegetarian diet a good recommendation in the development phase?

Thus, it is important to highlight that there are several classifications in the vegetarian diet according to the total or partial exclusion of animal foods, such as pescetarian, lacto-ovovegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, egg-vegetarian and vegan. But, in fact, Diets with important restrictions imply the risk of not meeting nutritional needs both in terms of energy and nutrient intake, especially in pregnancy, lactation and early childhood.

Vegetarian Diet vs. Vegan Diet

Several nutrition societies support the use of vegetarian diets at all stages of life, but requiring nutritional supplements when necessary.. Therefore, vegetarian diets when well planned are suitable for individuals during all phases of life, including pregnancy, lactation, childhood and adolescence.

However, the vegan diet is not indicated for children and, if implemented, nutrients such as vitamin B12, DHA, iron, vitamin D and calcium should be supplemented, besides being necessary to pay to the amino acid profile of the proteins ingested. It is also worth mentioning that regardless of type, the vegetarian diet can generate nutritional deficiencies and should be carefully monitored during child growth and development.

Risks of the Vegetarian Diet

Given the low number of evidence, it is not possible to say with certainty that vegetarian diets in childhood and adolescence ensure adequate growth and nutritional status. And not at what age one can start a vegetarian diet without side effects on growth. What

is known is that the more restricted a diet, the greater the nutritional deficiencies. Therefore, periodic assessments of nutritional status are recommended, including supplementation prescribed in both children and adolescents to avoid serious consequences, such as growth deficits, anemia and especially neurological deficits, as they are often irreversible.

Previous studies have shown that a group of children without animal proteins had significantly more slow motor developmentand, to a lesser extent, speech and language development. Furthermore, averaged 3 months later than babies with an omnivorous diet. They present severe neurological results and growth deficits resulting from low levels of vitamin B12 and vitamin D, with anemia, growth retardation, brain abnormalities and demyelinization.

Vegetarian Diet and Chronic Noncommunicable Diseases

Vegetarian diets were considered effective in some substitution results, such as reductions in serum cholesterol and LDL, but not in serum triglycerides and with some mixed results for HDL cholesterol. In addition to the oxidative stress and body adipose tissue. However, in the evaluation of these results, it should be taken into account that most vegetarians have a globally healthier lifestyle with fewer risk factors (no alcohol consumption, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, etc.).

As for the effect on hypertension, vegetarian diets are associated with a lower BMI and lower risk of obesity, the decrease in blood pressure cannot be justified only on the basis of this factor. On the other other than effectiveness of vegetarian diets in the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus in adult patients is confirmed. However diabetics also tend to refuse vegetarian diets because they are considered too restrictive. No data were found on the paediatric population.

Common Nutritional Deficiencies

Deficiencies in energy, protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and riboflavin, leading to delayed growth, fat and muscle waste and slower psychomotor development. Folate concentrations were also higher, being considered an effect of vitamin B12 deficiency.

Despite the higher iron intake, was observed 15% in this audience. Vegetarian children, and particularly vegans, due to the lower non-heme iron absorption, require a higher iron consumption (1.8 times higher than that of omnivores), although iron absorption cannot be facilitated by the composition of meals, reducing phytote and polyphenol content and increasing vitamin C content.

In vegan children, on the other hand, daily calcium intake may be insufficient for babies because the calcium content of breast milk, not affected by a vegan diet, is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of babies. Furthermore, infants and children up to 3 years of age who follow a vegan diet are at risk of vitamin A deficiency and especially vitamin B12, which occurs only in food of animal origin.

Clinical practice

For obvious ethical reasons, there are no intervention studies evaluating the direct impact of vegetarian/vegetarian diets on children’s physical and neurocognitive development. On the contrary there are numerous studies that have looked at the effects of food shortages. And for that, the best source of vitamins and minerals is a balanced and varied diet combined with outdoor exercise. A healthy individual should only need supplements in exceptional cases and times.

And from these studies, it can be deduced that vegetarian and vegan diets are inadequate for the correct neuro-psychomotor development of children. If a vegetarian or vegan diet is recommended by a pediatrician during food introduction, potentially serious side effects caused by vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, riboflavin, iron and not to mention low energy and protein intake.

Bibliographic references

Study Suggestion: The
effects of vegetarian and vegan diet during pregnancy on the health of mothers and children – Science Play

Watch the video on Science Play with Aline
David: Nutrition for Vegetarian and Vegan Children

Article: Simeone G, Bergamini M, Verga MC, Cuomo B, D’Antonio G, Iacono ID, Mauro DD, Mauro FD, Mauro GD, Leonardi L, Miniello VL, Palma F, Scotese I, Tezza G, Vania A, Caroli M. Do Vegetarian Diets Provide Adequate Nutrient Intake during Complementary Feeding? A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2022; 14(17):3591.

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