Brain food: mother’s vegan diet not enough for breast-fed babies
A DEFICIENCY IN JUST ONE nutrient–vitamin B12–can halt the development of a baby’s brain. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported two cases of severe BI2 deficiency in toddlers who were breast-fed by vegan mothers. Vegans practice a strict form of vegetarianism, cutting all meat from their diet, as well as eggs, dairy and other animal by-products. The vitamin occurs naturally only in animal products and helps maintain nerve and blood cells.
The two mothers, who both lived in Georgia, were themselves deficient in B12. Although both morns said they intermittently took vitamin supplements, the deficiency caused developmental delays in the children, who were 15 months old and two and a half years old at the time of the study. Both had about half the language and motor skills of average kids their age. The rate of B12 deficiency in the general population is unknown, according to the CDC.
“This highlights a problem that doesn’t just affect vegetarians,” says Maria Elena Jefferds, Ph.D., an epidemiologist who researched the cases at the CDC. “There are plenty of non-vagan Americans who don’t pay enough attention to what they eat and lack basic nutrients.”
Vitamin B12 deficiency is difficult to diagnose, Jefferds says, because symptoms can be subtle. In young children, a lack of B12 usually manifests as lethargy or developmental delays between the ages of 4 months to 8 months. Too little B12 can also disrupt a child’s attention span, and slow motivation and learning.
In adults, B12 deficiency signs can range from mild confusion and irritability to more serious problems such as hallucinations, depression, memory loss and paranoia.
Eating a nutritious, varied diet can thwart most vitamin deficiencies, even in strict vegetarians. Many foods, among them adult breakfast cereals and many soy products, are fortified with vitamins, including B12. For pregnant or nursing vegan mothers, it’s important to eat these foods and to take a reputable brand of vitamin supplement, says Jefferds.
The children cited in the CDC report were able to recover somewhat from malnutrition after being hospitalized and fed a supplemented diet. However, a year after treatment, both children had lingering symptoms.
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