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What Research Says About the Risks of a Vegan Diet

Photograph by Twenty20

Over the summer, doctors found an Italian toddler—raised on a vegan diet—to be severely malnourished and dangerously calcium deficient. Though 14 months old, he was the size of a 3-month-old infant. He was also battling a heart problem, one that required immediate surgery. His calcium deficiency made the surgery he needed for his congential heart problem even more complicated and life-threatening.

The child was removed from his parents and joined the ranks of 4 other cases in the last year and a half in Italy (and more, worldwide) of babies and young children being hospitalized for—or dying from—malnutrition due to a vegan diet.

So it might come a surprise that new nutrition guidelines from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics state that plant-based vegan diets are "healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." But with a caveat: supplements and lots of planning.

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Reuters interviewed Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Academy, who said that the instances of vegan diets harming children are not the result of plant-based meals and a lack of foods derived from animal products. Rather, the problem of malnutrition happens when the diets lack all the proper nutrients. Parents raising kids on plant-based diets have to plan their meals to include all necessary nutrients and in adequate amounts. Specifically, they need to be sure their kids are eating foods that are rich in iron, zinc and vitamin B-12, and, in many cases (including the Italian toddler), calcium and vitamin D.

“Any diet that is not well planned and balanced can have negative side-effects," Sheth said. "Just because foods are plant-based doesn’t automatically make them healthy. For instance, pastries, cookies, fried and salty foods may be vegan but don’t really provide much in terms of nutritional value.”

The Academy published its position recently in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, where they estimated more than 3 percent of all American adults are vegetarian or vegan—ways of eating that are less common among the elderly. In the publication "Eat Right," nutritionist and dietician members recommended that breast-feeding mothers and infants who don't consume milk products and eggs take supplements or eat fortified foods to boost vitamins B-12, D, calcium and iron.

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Last year, the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published its findings regarding pregnant vegans. They concluded that there is no evidence of "increase in severe adverse outcomes or in major malformations" and that vegan and vegetarian diets can be considered safe for pregnant women, provided the women account for adequate B-12 and iron in their diets.

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