Does nature abhor a vegan child?

The Guardian‘s leading parenting and family life writer Joanna Moorhead asks whether veganism is safe for children. And with the following standfirst her column this week gets off to a bad start:

“A cruelty-free diet may be healthy for adults, but parents should be aware of the risks for their children”

Quoting paediatric dietician Helen Wilcock, Moorhead appears to argue that vegan diets are inherently deficient in energy density, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. There are in the article some commonsense warnings regarding dietary balance and the needs of children as compared and contrasted with those of adults, but at the same time there are included purported statements of fact which are in reality total nonsense. Take, for example, these words from the British Nutrition Foundation‘s Claire Williamson:

“[S]emi-skimmed milk, low-fat foods and high-fibre foods may be best for adults, but under-fives need full-fat dairy produce, while high-fibre roughage can fill them up too quickly, so they don’t eat enough nutritious food.”

Being largely free of the food-based neuroses that bedevil adults of the human species, physically active children will if provided with sufficient food consume as many calories as they need in order to maintain their busy lifestyles.

So what is Williamson saying: that childebeest should be fed on high-protein, low-carbohydrate, low-fibre diets? Because that is the implication of the words quoted above, and such gut-rottery can hardly be described as a balanced and responsible approach to child nutrition. All this stuff about “muesli belt kids” is complete rubbish. If some parents are imposing caloric restrictions on their children in addition to vegetarian/vegan diets, then that is another matter. The two are not necessarily related.

Worth noting here is that the British Nutrition Foundation is a food industry lobby group, not an independent health promotion charity.

Only at the end of Moorhead’s piece are we presented with some counterbalance to this food industry PR, in the form of the Vegan Society‘s Amanda Baker:

“There are plenty of children who are eating a bad diet, and they’re not vegan. Vegan parents have to plan their child’s food carefully. Of course there are pitfalls, but there are pitfalls for all parents and for any diet.

“The reality is that vegan parents are more likely to cook at home, and are likely to be very knowledgeable about nutrition because they have had to make a lot of effort to follow the diet they do. Many of them follow a wholefood diet, and avoid trans-fats and too much salt. It’s actually much easier for vegans and their children to meet the five-a-day guidelines than for other people.”

Baker is quite right, but it’s not only vegan parents who need to better plan their children’s feeding habits. And as Moorhead acknowledges, the problem is that many people – doctors and health workers as well as parents – are ill-informed when it comes to issues of diet and nutrition.

Declaration of interest: While my diet is largely vegan, my personal food regime is far from rigid, and I do not endorse strict veganism per se. I am not a member of the Vegan Society, but am supportive of the organisation’s work. My own concern is not so much with what we eat, but rather the way in which it has been produced and distributed.