Is a Meat-Free Diet Safe for Babies?
A group of doctors from The Royal Academy of Medicine in Belgium have put forward a proposal to make feeding babies a vegan diet illegal.
The committee stated that vegan diets are unsuitable for unborn children, children and adolescents as well as pregnant and lactating women, and that feeding this population a vegan diet, which requires supplements and special medical follow-ups “raises important bioethical issues”. Furthermore, their position is that a vegan diet induces serious deficiencies because it’s low in bioavailable protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine and DHA. Their serious concerns about the long-term consequences resulting from B12 deficiency was emphasized.
I’m worried that the latest news of a Swedish couple that has just been jailed for feeding their 18-month old child a vegan diet of rice, potatoes, and breastmilk is sadly the beginning of more to come. The child nearly starved to death before authorities stepped in. Unfortunately, I don’t see this trend reversing, I see it getting stronger. While I believe in most cases, parents are trying to do their best, there needs to be more written about how a diet void of animal products is NOT ideal for babies and can do serious harm.
Last year, I wrote a post that argued that a a vegan diet is not safe and that a vegetarian diet is likely not an ideal diet for kids. What I found when I dug into the research around this topic was troubling at best and even outright dangerous for children. Most of the research I reviewed for that article focused on children ages 2 and up. But, what about those under the age of 2? Do the same recommendations stand for babies as well?
The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans have traditionally ignored the age group between 0 and 2. But, the new 2020-2025 guidelines will try to tackle this group as well with their own tailored recommendations. The reasoning is that there has been growing evidence that the groundwork for obesity, poor brain development, and future health all begin in the first 24 months of life.
Although the content of the new guidelines has not yet been announced, we can probably expect the recommendations for babies to be relatively similar to what the Dietary Guidelines are for adults. They may make recommendations about when to start solids and discuss formula versus breast feeding, but that has yet to be seen. What I am certain of, is that they will probably recommend limiting saturated fat, sugar, and salt and eating a more plant-based diet. This translates to a diet that limits meat and other animal-foods. Limiting animal foods in a baby’s diet is a major concern for a baby’s development.
Best Foods for Brain Development
The biggest concern about a plant-based, limited meat diet for babies is that it is likely inadequate in protein, and fat, the critical nutrients needed for brain development. There simply isn’t evidence to support that vegetarian protein sources like milk, eggs, soy, and legumes are adequate substitutes for meat. But, there is evidence to support that they are not equivalent in terms of nutrition, particularly for a developing brain.
Nutritional support of brain development between the ages of 0 and 2 is critical. The brain doubles in size during the first year of life. The brain of a two year old has twice as many synapses of an adult, since they are actively learning to make sense of their environment. To avoid meat and the nutrients it provides during this critical time could put a child at risk for major cognitive disadvantages.
A 2014 study compared the impact of a meat, milk or oil supplement on malnourished children ages 6-14. Researchers found that those who received meat supplement had the best health outcomes after 2.25 years in the study, which corresponded to 10 additional IQ points when compared to the other groups.
Although milk is high in protein and fat, animal flesh and fat provide other nutrients that support brain development. Nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, and zinc are all highly absorbable in meat. The calcium in milk prevents proper iron absorption. Iron is critical for brain development.
Eggs do contain many nutrients that support brain development, such as cholesterol, fat, choline, protein, and zinc. But, eggs are low in iron and contain the less bioavailable non-heme iron. In order for an infant to meet the nutrient needs for iron through egg-consumption alone, a child would have to eat multiple eggs a day.
Non-supplemented vegetarian diets are low in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA. ALA, the omega-3 found in fats, is inefficiently converted to the active omega-3s. A study found that vegans had a 52% lower plasma level of EPA and 58% lower level of DHA when compared to omnivores.
DHA in particular is critical for cognitive development of the fetus and infant in the early stages of life and must come from dietary sources. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that pregnant women supplement for DHA due to the known benefits for fetal brain development.
Concerns over Soy
Many vegetarians use soy as a meat substitute, touting its complete amino acid profile as being equivalent to meat, but there are some concerns with a high soy intake particularly for those with a developing reproductive system. The phytoestrogens in soy may result in malformations of the reproductive organs and other disruptions of the endocrine system.
Additionally, legumes are high in phytates, which inhibit the absorption of many minerals, particularly iron. This can lead to iron deficiency, since needs are so high during infancy. A high soy intake may put vegan children at risk for both cognitive and reproductive disorders.
Eliminating all animal products from a baby’s diet puts them at risk for micronutrient deficiencies as well. Vitamin B12 is a major concern for those following a plant-based diet as it is exclusively found in animal foods. B12 deficiency during pregnancy results in multiple complications including low birth weight and neural tube defects. One study found that 56% of lactating vegan women were deficient in B12.
For infants, B12 deficiency causes neurological and developmental delays, some that can be long-term. Failure to thrive and anemia are also signs of deficiency. Clinical signs usually only manifest between 6-8 months of age, when some of the permanent damage may have already been done.
What Should Babies Eat?
Babies need a varied diet that contains adequate calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and micronutrients. An omnivorous diet is optimal to support a baby’s growth and development. Formula or breastmilk should be the primary source of nutrition prior to 6 months. Age-appropriate complementary foods should be offered after 6 months, which should include ground or minced meats and other foods high in iron.
As far as formulas go, there are no options in the United States for a vegan formula. Even soy-based baby formulas have vitamin D that is sourced from lanolin, making them not completely vegan. Some vegan families have opted for nutritionally inadequate homemade formulas, which has led to severe malnutrition and death of infants and children. Sadly, these cases are not isolated:
February, 2019: Florida couple charged with child neglect after feeding a 5-month old a homemade vegan baby formula made out of potatoes. The child nearly died of malnutrition.
July, 2016: 14-month old baby brought to hospital for severe calcium deficiency that led to a heart condition. The baby weighed slightly more than a 3-month old.
March, 2011: 11-month old exclusively breastfed baby dies from severe vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition. Mother followed a strict vegan diet.
Because of case studies like this, it’s now being recommended that all children with failure to thrive and certain neurological signs related to B12 deficiency be accessed for vegan diets. It’s estimated that approximately 500,000 children under the age of 5 are vegan in the United States alone. Many will say that a Western Diet, full of junk food is also unhealthy, but there’s a huge difference between junk food and permanent brain damage. We don’t see any ethical case to deny animals a species-appropriate diet and children need animal-based foods. We’re not alone in our position. Both Germany and Switzerland specifically don’t recommend vegan diets for pregnant or lactating women, infants, children or adolescents, but what will the new 2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend?
Should certain diets be “illegal”? Is feeding a child a diet that poses serious risks abuse? Certainly parents have had their children taken away because of malnutrition resulting from vegan diets. Another alternative could be to require vegan parents imposing such a diet on their children to sign off that they realize this diet poses serious risks, and that they are responsible for acquiring dietary education, appropriate dosing of supplements and mandatory frequent visits to medical and dietetic experts to monitor for signs of malnutrition and failure to thrive.