Ahh, the many benefits of veganism: you can read about it everywhere or watch countless documentaries on some of the biggest streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu. Indeed, veganism has become mainstream and widely accepted. Even some of the most influential celebrities the youth often look up to are vegan: Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Lizzo, and Madelaine Petsch, just to name a few. Plus moguls like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos got involved in the plant-based movement themselves by investing millions in Nature’s Fynd, the company creating mock meat and dairy products from microorganisms like fungi and bacteria. With veganism making headlines and getting massive support from some of the biggest names, it makes sense why the percentage of vegans shot up from 1% in 2014 to 6% in 2017 – a 500% increase in the span of just three years.
Nowadays, it’s difficult to estimate exactly how many people have switched to veganism, but with plant-based meats and dairy options now having their own aisle in most grocery stores, it’s obvious that plenty of consumers have made the switch from animal products to veggies. Perhaps the growth in veganism could be tied to malnourishment in modern times – 40% of Americans are deficient in B12 and 10% of children in the U.S. are deficient in iron (both of which are essential nutrients found in eggs, organs, and meat).
The number of vegans increased by 500% from 2014 to 2017.
Of course, with more adults switching to veganism comes a new wave of children being raised as vegans as well. But in the age of information, I fear that even the most loving parents could be easily misguided, only giving their children what they believe they need based on what they think is ethical or moral, and ignoring signs of nutritional deficiencies in the process. This, of course, applies to meat-eaters as well. However, plant-based formulas are naturally low in protein, and most vegan-friendly baby foods have been found to contain heavy metals. And when the diet is centered on feeding a child only vegetables and fruits, they’re dismissing the essential nutrients that are more easily absorbed and found in animal products. What does this mean in terms of their growth and development?
What’s choline? Choline is an essential nutrient that your liver makes (though not enough) for proper cellular function, growth, and development. You can find large amounts of choline in liver, seafood, and eggs. Because high quantities are naturally found in meat and low amounts are found in vegetables, vegans may find themselves deficient in this nutrient if they don’t take supplements or eat enough plants containing choline.
Insufficient choline during pregnancy can cause cognitive impairment, neural tube, and cleft lip defects in babies.
But surprisingly enough, most adults (yes, that includes meat-eaters) don’t get enough choline – which probably means they’re not feeding their kids enough choline-rich foods either. At least 71.8% of 1 year olds and 55.8% of 2 year olds do not meet their recommended adequate intake of 200mg. While the effects of this nutrient in humans are not as well studied as those in animals, studies prove that choline is beneficial for neurological and cognitive function in the offspring of animals. It especially played a role in the developmental changes of the hippocampal region of the brain which is important for learning, memory, and spatial navigation. Pregnant women who are deficient in choline have greater risks for cognitive impairment, neural tube, and cleft lip defects in their children.
But choline isn’t the only essential nutrient children need in order to grow healthy and strong. Let’s take a look at the other essential vitamins and minerals to ensure they grow healthy and strong.
2. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is crucial for development as it maintains healthy blood and nerve cells and is required for DNA synthesis. Vegetarians and vegans are commonly deficient in this vitamin, since foods that are naturally high in B12 include organs, meat, and shellfish.
Pregnant women who don’t consume enough foods rich in vitamin B12 can’t produce enough healthy blood red cells and thus have greater risks of birth defects and pre-term labor. And when children are deficient in this vitamin, developmental delays are exhibited in the following symptoms: a diverging growth curve, irritability, eating disorders, weakness, and other neurological issues. The first year in life is greatly associated with the amount of vitamin B12 that was available during pregnancy. Even mild deficiencies can have detrimental effects on a child’s development and major deficiencies can lead to irreparable damage. This makes B12 one of the most important nutrients for proper growth and cognitive function.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The two most important omega-3 fatty acids you need to know about are EPA and DHA. Our bodies can’t make omega-3 fatty acids – we have to get them from our diet. Because both EPA and DHA are found in fish and other non-seafood sources that include red meat, poultry, and eggs, the intake of both of these acids is low in vegetarians and almost non-existent in vegans.
EPA and DHA are associated with proper fetal development and cardiovascular function.
Both fatty acids are associated with proper fetal development and cardiovascular function. EPA has anti-inflammatory properties, and DHA is necessary for neurodevelopment and learning. Animals that showed low DHA levels exhibited signs of impaired learning and behavior. When children supplemented with fatty acids like DHA, cognition and behavior improved. Supplementing with DHA during pregnancy assists with the brain, eye, and neurological development of babies and even prevents pre-term births while ensuring a healthy birth weight, as well as supporting the mother’s mood.
Iron is essential for blood production and is derived from meat and organs while non-heme iron (which is not as easily absorbed) is found in plants like legumes or leafy greens.
Iron supplies help expand our blood volume, which increases during growth for nutrient transport and assists in tissue formation. Children with ADHD showed low levels of serum ferritin, the blood protein that contains iron. Girls who were given iron showed improvements in verbal learning and memory. Depleted iron stores were prevalent in vegetarians, with a higher percentage (compared to non-vegetarians) showing signs of anemia.
Pregnant women also need more iron to make more blood supply for the baby. Adverse consequences of iron deficiency in pregnant women include fetal death, low-birth weight, hypertension, and neurological impairment. Thus, supplementing with iron is crucial.
In the same way that humans need certain nutrients found in plants, there are also benefits to eating meat. And just like how children require nutrients in order to grow, adults also need to stay on top of their diet to feel good. But completely cutting off animal products could be harmful to you and your family, and testing it is not really worth the risk. With veganism trending and growing, it’s important that people stay cautious of the nutrients that they may be dismissing in their pursuit to avoid meat.
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