Reading Time: 2 minutes 'The headlines have been wildly exaggerated and the study in question has a number of shortcomings' Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission. Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Another sensational headline this week declared ‘vegan diet, the negative effects on children. Severe vitamin deficiencies, according to University of Helsinki study’.

We read the study and of course, that wasn’t what they found. The headlines have been wildly exaggerated and the study 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. 

Vitamin deficiencies

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.  

In the UK, fish is not a popular food. The average adult consuming just 54 grams of oily fish a week, children probably even less! So, to suggest that children not eating DHA might be risking visual health seems a bit of a stretch to say the least. 

‘Looking for problems’

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 showing that we don’t need meat for iron.

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. It’s almost as if they were looking for problems… 

All the large health bodies agree that well-planned vegan diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood and for athletes.

The authors say that due to the small number of children in the study, larger, long-term studies are needed. It’s a shame they didn’t wait until they had more robust results!

This article was written by Viva!’s senior researcher and writer Dr. Justine Butler. You can read her piece on how to feed children a vegan diet here.

Dr. Justine Butler of Viva!

Dr. Butler graduated from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology and a BSc First Class (hons) in Biochemistry from UWE before joining Viva! in 2005. She currently researches, writes and campaigns for Viva!Health.