Parents: Kids Need Animal Protein

Parents want what’s best for their children, and in a time when veganism is being irresponsibly dubbed a panacea, some parents have imposed this diet onto their children with life-endangering costs. Animal protein is essential for the health and well-being of children.

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There are countless diets being popularized today, including veganism. Although an adult has the ability to make an educated decision about the best way to feed himself or herself on a daily basis, a growing chorus of child wellness advocates is pointing out that forcing a child to eat a vegan diet has lasting consequences for their health and development.

Some people are starting to agree that requiring a child to eat a vegan diet should be deemed child endangerment.

Last month, a set of parents in Ohio were charged with child endangerment, kidnapping, and assault after their severely malnourished 13-year-old son escaped from the family home and sought help at a neighbor’s house. The parents face up to 22 years and six months in prison.

Weighing only 65-pounds when he was admitted to the hospital, the victim is a survivor of childhood cancer, which prompted his mother to seek counsel from a doctor over the internet who prescribed a “naturalist” diet for the child. The victim told authorities that his diet consisted solely of bananas, nuts, and grapes and that he faced severe punishment if he ate anything else.

The case came shortly after a Florida couple nearly starved their five-month-old son to death after switching from physician-prescribed formula to a potato-based recipe that they found on the internet. The child weighed only eight-pounds and was diagnosed as malnourished.

These are not the first instances of parents facing criminal prosecution for mandating a vegan diet for their child. In August 2019, an Australian couple pled guilty to failing to provide their child with the necessities of life by forcing her to follow a strict vegan diet. The child was severely malnourished and medical tests showed that her bones had not developed since birth. Her growth was so stunted that she did not even have teeth. The parents told the court that they only fed their daughter oats, bananas, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, and rice, according to reports. The judge described this dietary regime as “completely inadequate.”

In 2017, a Belgian judge convicted two parents after their seven-month-old baby died as a result of being fed a vegan diet. The couple fed their infant a vegetable milk made of oak, buckwheat, rice, and quinoa. The infant was at least seven pounds underweight and his organs had shrunk to half their normal size. The conviction followed a number of similar cases in which a parent faced criminal penalties for feeding their children vegan diets. 

Since then, Belgium has taken a hard stance against veganism for children. The Royal Academy of Medicine in Belgium released an opinion statement describing veganism for children as unethical due to the health problems that it can cause and encouraging prosecution of parents who engage in the dietary practice for their children.

Children and pregnant mothers need animal protein to thrive 

With the rise of plant-based protein, many consumers are questioning whether animal protein should be part of their diets. The nutrients, vitamins, and protein that animal protein provides are essential for a well-rounded diet, particularly when it comes to children. Although adults may be able to get by on a nutrient-deficient diet, children critically depend on nutrients and vitamins found in animal proteins for proper development and growth. Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, DHA, and protein can be critically lacking from a vegan diet, often requiring vegans to rely heavily on artificial supplements to obtain complete nutrition.

The biggest concern about a plant-based, limited meat diet for babies is that it is likely inadequate in protein and fat, nutrients that are critical for proper brain development. There simply isn’t evidence to support vegetarian protein sources like milk, eggs, soy, and legumes as 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 because 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 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 meat 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 levels 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 DHA due to the known benefits for fetal brain development.

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 the death of infants and children. 

Pregnant mothers need meat, too.

Pregnant mothers also suffer when they attempt to grow a child on a vegetarian or vegan diet. A healthy infant starts with a healthy pregnancy, which allows the fetus to develop appropriately. 

One of the markers of healthy pregnancies and adequate nutrition is male to female sex ratio, which is usually 105:100. In stressed populations, for example, during times of war, there tends to be an increase in miscarriages of male fetuses, resulting in a lower sex ratio. Malnutrition and lack of adequate calories during pregnancy have been identified as one cause of lower sex ratios. A 2000 study of over 6,000 pregnant women found that those who followed a vegetarian diet had a considerably lower sex ratio when compared to those who followed an omnivorous diet and were 23% less likely to give birth to a boy. The low birth ratio of vegetarian women may be an indication of physical stress caused by this eating pattern and impact fetus viability.

Choose better meat.

Although parents who force their children to follow a vegan diet are likely well-intentioned, the outcome is disastrous for their children. If a parent wants to avoid feeding their children a diet that supports poor animal welfare or environmental damage, the best option isn’t to limit or restrict meat, but to choose better meat. The upcoming documentary and book, Sacred Cow, makes the environmental, nutritional, and ethical case for better meat and explores how livestock are not only a critical tool for combating climate change but also a vital part of our food system.

Lauren Stine, Esq., LL.M., is a cattle farmer, agricultural law professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, food journalist, and contributor to the forthcoming documentary and book project Sacred Cow: The environmental, nutritional, and ethical case for better meat.