Is veganism safe for kids? Health experts answer

The popularity of veganism continues to grow for adults - but is it safe for kids?

Traditional wisdom says animal products, especially protein from meat and calcium from dairy, are essential for keeping children healthy.

But is that actually the case?

Dr Mark Craig didn't want to roll the dice when it came to his children's health, but despite being a doctor he didn't actually know what was best to feed them.

"I trained in Edinburgh, a very good medical school, but nutrition is a tiny percentage of the curriculum," he told Newshub.

So eight years ago when Finlay was one and Ewen was four, Dr Craig did some extra research.

He says that left him with one option - his family stopped eating animal products and they went vegan.

"[I did it for] gut health, energy, sleep-wise, but [also for] preventing those long term chronic diseases that are killing most of our population prematurely in the Western world," he says.

He's not alone. Interest in veganism is growing rapidly worldwide.

While Google searches for 'vegetarian' and 'gluten-free' have flatlined for the past five years, searches for 'vegan' have skyrocketed.

And the only people who Google 'vegan' more than Kiwis are Australians and the British.

But alongside the touted benefits are horror headlines about malnourished vegan children.

And that's left people very confused, with a Google search for "is it safe for children to go vegan" returning more than a billion results.

So Newshub turned to Dr Clare Wall, the head of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Auckland.

She specialises in paediatric nutrition, specifically the relationship between diet and health in young children.

"Veganism is okay for a child but it does require knowledge and planning and it also requires to have an understanding of inclusion of a variety of plant-based foods in a child's diet, and that variety is really essential," she says.

Because children have higher nutrient needs than adults, their growing muscles require more protein, their growing bones more calcium and vitamin D and their growing brains more iron and vitamin B12.

All of those are much easier to get from animals.

"Children who have long term deficiencies of those, it may impact on their growth and also their brain development, and also may make them more susceptible to getting infections," Dr Wall says.

For a vegan child to not develop deficiencies, they need to be taking a vitamin B12 supplement and eating all of the different plant-based proteins - different varieties of pulses, beans, legumes, and nuts and seeds. Don't think you can just replace meat with 'fake' meat.

"A real note of caution around that because quite a lot of those vegan food products can be quite high in salt and sugar," Dr Wall says.

The end result is it's harder to be vegan and that leaves some working dieticians hesitant to give parents the okay to raise plant-based kids.

"Where we're going to come into real problems is if a child ends up on a really narrow, beige-looking diet that consists of more bread, pasta, processed packaged foods, chips, sugar, without those other nutrient-dense alternatives," Fearless Nutrition dietitian Sylvia North says.

But research indicates it's okay for people like Dr Craig, who has knowledge and plans. He makes nutritious lunches for both of his boys every day.

"They're both super healthy, doing well at school," he says.

"You don't need to but I did get them tested, and their iron is fine, their B12 is fine, their blood count is all good, all their measurable parameters are absolutely fine."

Doing fine without animals and indicating it's the quality of the diet rather than the diet itself that matters.