Vegan Diets and the Developing Brain
I’m running the risk here of sounding like a broken record, but this is important. There is not a one size fits all when it comes to diet. However, when it comes to your child, there are a few things about diet that you should consider.
Vegan diets, although helpful for a variety of different health conditions, are not ideal for a child’s developing brain and body. Vegan diets (diets consisting of no meat or animal products at all) are deficient in several nutrients that are necessary for your child’s healthy development. Without these nutrients, your child will not be receiving the essential brain food it needs for development and will be at risk for cognitive, language, and other developmental delays.
The biggest nutritional deficiencies in a vegan diet are essential fatty acids and vitamin B12. This is because the biggest sources of omega-3 fatty acids come from fish and specialized eggs. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. So this vitamin has to supplemented with if you are on a vegan diet.
So why is this a problem?
Vitamin B12 is crucial for healthy brain development and cognitive function in children. Low levels of vitamin B12 can cause children to have more difficulties solving cognitive tests and interpreting other children’s feelings. B12 is also essential for the myelination of our neurons (brain cells). Myelin is a protective coating around our brain cells that acts to both protect the cell and help it conduct signals more effectively. To put it simply, it helps our brain make new connections which are vital for growing brains. Low levels of B12 are common in the autism population as well as in children with language development challenges. The prevailing medical theory is that vitamin B12 plays a role in language development.
Essential fatty acids, including EPA and DHA, are essential for a child’s healthy brain development. Without these kids generally have problems with learning, memory, attention and even have behavioral problems. In some cases, DHA deficiencies can cause developmental delays or stunted development of a child’s brain and eyes. Bottom line – essential fatty acids are truly essential for a normally functioning brain.
Check out the studies on the importance of DHA here:
A vegan diet also puts you at risk for having zinc and iron deficiencies, as animal products, especially red meat are the major sources of these nutrients. Zinc deficiency in children can lead to poor physical and cognitive development. Your risk of developing a mental illness is increased if you have a zinc deficiency as zinc plays an important role in neurotransmitter production. Iron is vital to healthy brain development and it helps brains mature and grow. Deficiencies in iron have been linked to poor cognitive function in children and lower test scores in school.
Most vegan diets tend to be high in grains and starch. These grain heavy diets can be quite inflammatory due to the high quantities of sugar contained in grains and starches. This inflammation can cause or worsen a mental health condition. See my blogs about inflammation to learn more about this.
The common belief that nutrient deficiencies found in a vegan diet can be overcome by simple supplementation is dangerously false. The truth is, you need super high doses of nutrients from supplements to prevent deficiencies. Individual needs will differ as well, meaning what helps some people may hurt others, and what is too much for some will not be nearly enough for others. To complicate matters further, not all nutrients are created equal. The synthetic forms of nutrients you get in supplements just don’t work as well in the body as those found in food. The final kicker – even if you are eating a well balanced diet, you may still need to supplement with an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, as those nutrients are SO important for our brains!
It’s important to remember that proper nutrition is not only important for healthy development of our children’s physical growth, it is also vital for their brain development.
The bottom line is: most of the essential nutrients that are necessary for brain development are found in animal products and that’s why a vegan diet can be more harmful than helpful to your child’s health overall, and their mental health in particular.