Vegan diet broad effect on children’s metabolism

August de Richelieu/Pexels

A vegan diet significantly remodels metabolism in young children, according to a new study published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.

For the study, researchers from the University of Helsinki studied the nutrition and metabolism of 40 healthy children in Helsinki-based daycares. The children were following a vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore diet, according to the choice of their families. Their nutritional intake, metabolic biomarkers, and micronutrient statuses were observed.

Serum biomarker levels for vitamins A and D, cholesterol forms and essential amino acids were significantly lower in children on vegan diet compared to age-adjusted omnivores. In addition, docosahexaenoic acid is absent from vegan diet, the study said.

Vegan diets gain popularity especially among young adults and is becoming more common in young children. The motives behind choosing a vegan lifestyle are ecological, ethical, and health related. Vegan diets exclude all animal-based products. It is recommended that full vegan diet is always supplemented with vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iodine, and based on individual assessment, the supplementation for calcium, vitamin B2, iron, and zinc may be needed.

Except for vitamin D, the study did not find differences between diet groups in the levels of these nutrients in young children. All the participated vegan children used regular vitamin B12, and all but one used regular vitamin D and iodine supplementation. Current nutritional recommendations are based on studies conducted on adult vegans, and previous studies on metabolic effects of vegan diets in children do not exist, the researchers said.

In the current study, the children on a fully vegan diet were found to have significantly lower vitamin D levels compared to children without a special diet despite having regular vitamin D supplementation and blood samples being collected in late summer. Their vitamin A status was also lowered. Levels for LDL and HDL cholesterol, essential amino acid, and docosahexaenoic acid, a fatty acid with a central role in development of visual function, were low while folate levels were remarkably high in vegan children.

According to the researchers, the new findings motivate further and larger studies on the health consequences of a vegan diet in young children.

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