Chronic diseases often take root in childhood
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics not only endorse well-planned vegan diets, they also highlight their many benefits: “Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease.” (Melina et al., 2016)
When we think of heart disease, we usually imagine someone middle-aged or older. So why does someone have a heart attack at 45 years old? Or have to take drugs to lower blood pressure at 30? The answer is simple – heart disease doesn’t happen overnight but takes a long time to develop and become life-threatening. Bad diet can start hurting our blood vessels at a very young age.
The research is clear – diets high in meat, saturated fat, sugar, junk foods and salt, and lacking in fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds damage the heart and blood vessels (Micha et al., 2017; Korakas et al., 2018). These diets increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood. When you eat saturated and hydrogenated fats, your body turns these into cholesterol – a form of fat that floats in your blood. This floating cholesterol is sticky and can get caught on the inside of blood vessel walls. When this happens, other blobs of cholesterol can then stick to it and form plaques – layers of cholesterol in your blood vessels (arteries) that limit the blood flow and can eventually even clog them. The term for this artery narrowing is atherosclerosis and when normal blood flow is blocked, it can lead to heart attacks and stroke.
It may seem a problem that doesn’t affect children but research revealed that children as young as three years may already have fatty patches in their blood vessels. When these children grow up, the fatty patches develop into atherosclerotic plaques, which is why people in their early twenties can have extensive atherosclerosis (Desmond et al., 2018).
Children growing up on unhealthy diets full of meat, fat and sugar are more likely to have higher cholesterol, fat and sugar levels in their blood and higher than healthy body weight (Shang et al., 2020). On the other hand, healthy childhood diets not only lower heart disease risk in adulthood but vegan children also have lower cholesterol levels and more antioxidants in the blood – this helps to protect their blood vessels and hearts even more (Desmond et al., 2018 and 2021; Alexy et al., 2021).
When it comes to adolescence, science is clear that high cholesterol, blood pressure, excess fat (body weight) and smoking harm the health of blood vessels and increase the risk of heart disease in adulthood (Desmond et al., 2018). A vegan diet can help slash the risk!
It’s perfectly normal and healthy for children to not be too slim. They’re growing fast so they need a lot of food and energy. However, if a child carries so much excess weight that it undermines their health, it’s a problem.
Childhood obesity does not have one definition, rather it is based on age- and sex-specific BMI (body mass index, calculated from height and weight) and is often referred to as BMI-for-age. It’s because children’s body composition varies as they grow and also depends on gender. In general, obesity is then defined as BMI greater than 95 per cent of children of the same age and sex.
Scientific studies show that childhood obesity makes the child or teenager likely to be obese also in adulthood (Simmonds et al., 2015; Desmond et al., 2018). And while in children, obesity brings an increased risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and breathing problems, in adulthood, it also increases the risk of heart disease, some types of cancer and infections.
Vegan and vegetarian children are usually within healthy weight ranges and have lower rates of obesity which gives them a healthy start to life (Desmond et al., 2018 and 2021).
Type 2 diabetes used to develop later in life, typically following many years of a diet rich in fat, sugar, animal products and processed foods. Not anymore. There are growing numbers of children developing this disease, teenagers in particular, and suffering poor health as a result (Nadeau et al., 2016).
Type 2 diabetes means that your body cells develop insulin resistance – they stop reacting to the hormone insulin correctly. Insulin is released from the pancreas when you’ve eaten and your blood sugar rises – insulin’s job is to get the sugar from your blood into your cells. So when your cells stop reacting to insulin, sugar cannot get in, your cells lack energy and there’s too much sugar in your blood. At the same time, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas may also be producing too little, making things even worse.
High blood sugar, the main symptom of diabetes, leads to a host of issues – it may damage blood vessel walls and that, over time, can cause eyesight problems, kidney damage, nerve damage, high blood pressure, high blood fats and cholesterol. The last trio makes diabetics more likely to develop heart disease.
So how does it happen? In adults and children alike, too much fat in the body is one of the major risk factors for developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes – it changes how cells work and disrupts blood sugar regulation (Serbis et al., 2021).
Unhealthy diets are a major risk factor with research showing that a bad diet in childhood increases the risk of type 2 diabetes in later teenage years and adulthood (Desmond et al., 2018).
What makes things worse is that when type 2 diabetes develops in adolescents, it progresses faster than in adults, leading to other health issues (Serbis et al., 2021). The good news is that a wholesome vegan diet can prevent this from happening – in fact, vegans have up to 50 per cent lower risk of type 2 diabetes (Appleby and Key, 2016; Salas-Salvadó et al., 2019).
Further, a varied and healthy vegan diet can help reverse diabetes type 2 (Barnard et al., 2009; Kahleova et al., 2011; McMacken and Shah, 2017).
If your child has a healthy vegan diet and you’ll help them develop healthy habits for life, their risk of type 2 diabetes will be minimal.
Cancer is one of the biggest killers of our time and most of us would do anything to protect our children from getting it. One of the best things we can do to reduce their risk of several cancers is to teach them how to eat well. Cancer usually starts developing years, even decades, before it’s diagnosed. Childhood diet and lifestyle can either increase the risk of cancer or decrease it. Even though genetics play a role, what we eat and how we live can be the deciding factors.
A large-scale review of data on nutrition and cancer risk in childhood and adulthood concluded that the biggest diet-related risk factors are obesity and a diet high in meat, especially processed meat, fat, salt and alcohol (Mosby et al., 2012). On the other hand, the study revealed that people consuming a plant-based diet are at a lower risk of cancer. These results have been supported by many other studies, most notably a large study from Oxford University which found that British vegans have a one fifth lower risk of cancer than meat-eaters (Key et al., 2014). The results of the US Adventist Health Study II (AHS-2) were similar, revealing that vegans had a 16 per cent lower risk of all cancers combined (Tantamango-Bartley et al., 2013) and other scientific studies show 15-18 per cent lower cancer rates in vegans (Huang et al., 2012; Dinu et al., 2017; Segovia-Siapco and Sabaté, 2019).
Meat has been repeatedly linked to cancer and many experts would like to see health warnings on meat products. In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified processed meat as carcinogenic (causing cancer) and red meat as probably carcinogenic (Bouvard et al., 2015). Even small amounts of red and processed meat have been shown to increase the risk of colon, breast and prostate cancer (Wolk, 2017).
Mental health is affected by many factors and food is one of them. The foods children eat can have a profound impact on their mental state, ability to concentrate and mood. Sometimes, this relationship works both ways and poor mental state influences their food choices, favouring junk foods and shunning the good old fruit and veggies.
This can become a vicious circle but healthy food choices can break it and help your child develop healthy habits. On the other hand, junk foods, sweets, high-fat foods, meat-heavy diet and fizzy drinks may increase children’s risk of experiencing anxiety, low mood and even depression (Jacka et al., 2013; O’Neil et al., 2014; Khalid et al., 2016).
The authors of a comprehensive study on the relationship between diet and mental health in childhood and adolescence confirmed the link between poor diet and worse mental health (O’Neil et al., 2014). They explained that low intake of folate, zinc, and magnesium is associated with depressive disorders, while low intake of omega-3 fats is related to anxiety disorders. At the same time, it is now well-known that people with depression tend to have high inflammation markers – these markers are usually increased by poor diet and reduced with a healthy diet (O’Neil et al., 2014).
Another review, focused on adult mental health and diet, agrees with the study above and adds that high fat diets also contribute to worse mental health in adults (Bremner et al., 2020). It highlights that it’s important to eat plenty of plant foods and omega-3 fats and reduce saturated fat consumption – this can not only improve your mental but also gut health and that, in turn, has a positive effect on the brain and immune system.
Helping children develop healthy diet habits from early age does not just support their physical health, it also improves their mental wellbeing and we all know how important that is!