Vegan diet significantly alters metabolism in young kids, lowers levels of vitamins A and D

HELSINKI, Finland — For many families, however the parents eat will likely become the diet of their children as well. While switching to a vegan diet is becoming a popular choice among young adults, a new study finds the same health benefits don’t necessarily apply to kids. Researchers from the University of Helsinki say young children on a vegan diet have a significantly altered metabolism. These youngsters also have lower levels of several nutrients, including vitamins A and D.

In a study examining 40 healthy children in daycare, researchers looked at the nutritional differences between young vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores (children eating both plant and animal products). Study authors gathered extensive information on nutritional intake, metabolic biomarkers, and micronutrient levels coming from the diets parents chose for their toddlers.

The results reveal vegan diets leave children with a wide range of metabolic differences compared to their meat-eating friends. Biomarker levels for vitamins A and D, cholesterol forms, and essential amino acids are all noticeably lower in kids who go vegan. These children also had a complete lack of docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid which plays a key role in the development of visual function.

Why go green?

People turn to veganism for a variety of reasons. The decision to exclude all animal products from their diets ranges from ecological concerns, to ethical ones over animal welfare, to the simple belief that the vegan diet is a healthier option.

While cutting out meat may provide some health benefits, the study notes that people on a vegan diet are also encouraged to take several supplements to balance out their nutritional needs. These include vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine. In some cases, certain people who go vegan may also need calcium, vitamin B2, iron, and zinc supplements as well.

During the study, researchers discovered that Finnish parents are doing their homework when it comes to veganism. All of the vegan children examined were receiving supplements for vitamin B12. All of the kids except one had also been taking vitamin D and iodine too. Aside from vitamin D, study authors did not find any major differences in the levels of these other nutrients when comparing vegans to other children.

The team notes however, that current nutritional guidelines about veganism come from studies on adults, not children. Until now, researchers say there haven’t been any studies on how the vegan diet impacts children.

The unknown impact of following a vegan diet too early

Study authors report that kids on a fully vegan diet also have lower levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol in their blood samples. However, vegan children did have much higher levels of folate in their systems. This vitamin helps create red and white blood cells in the bone marrow and is given to patients with anemia.

“Our results indicate that the health effects of strict diets on children cannot be extrapolated from studies on adults. In addition to vitamin D intake, attention must be paid to adequate intake of vitamin A and protein from various sources.” says study author Topi Hovinen in a university release.

“The vegan families were active to participate in our study. This is important, because without such voluntary contribution of the families it is not possible to undertake this kind of studies,” co-author Liisa Korkalo adds.

The study appears in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.