Another sensational headline this week declared that a new study had connected plant-based diets with negative health effects on children, including “severe vitamin deficiencies.”
We read the study and of course, that wasn’t what researchers found. The headlines have been wildly exaggerated and the research in question has a number of shortcomings.
Most studies investigating the effects of different types of diet include a large number of participants; hundreds, if not thousands or even tens of thousands. This study looked at 40 children of which just six individuals were vegan.
They found that these six had lower vitamin A and D levels than the meat-eating children. But, not low enough to be described as deficient.
One of the peer reviewers (other scientists asked to read the manuscript ahead of publication) said: “I do not think the paper provided sufficient evidence to support the overarching assertion that vegan children may have insufficient vitamin A and vitamin D status”.
They also found that vegan children had a higher intake of ALA, an omega-3 fat found in plant foods, but lower intakes of EPA and DHA. No surprises there as fish are the main dietary source of EPA and DHA.
The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA, albeit at low levels.
We need DHA for normal brain and eye function. There’s no evidence that vegan children have an increased risk for visual problems, but the authors warned that the lower levels of DHA and vitamin A in the vegan children in this study may raise a concern for the visual health of vegan kids in general.
There was no difference between the vegan and meat-eating children for vitamin B12, zinc, iodine, or iron. Other studies have found that vegans have a higher intake of iron than meat-eaters.
Further, the vegan children in this small study had higher levels of folate. This is usually considered a good thing, but the authors said high folate is not necessarily good in the presence of low B12 levels.
However, they had just described how the vegan kids did not have low B12 levels.
All the large health bodies agree that well-planned plant-based diets are appropriate for all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and older adulthood, as well as for athletes.
The authors admit that due to the small number of children in the study, larger, long-term studies are needed.