Whether it be for reasons of health or animal compassion or environmental protection, one thing is for certain, the vegan diet is rising in popularity, not only on Instagram but also in RL. Droves of folks spanning the globe from the Kingdom United to Japan (that’s right; it’s big in Japan) are adopting what’s being dubbed in mainstream culture the “ethical” or “compassionate diet”. Just how many folks exactly? Well… bushels full. In a 2017 survey, Great Britain and the US reported increases of 350% + individuals reporting they follow a vegan diet.
Veganism for adherents is much more than just a diet. It’s a lifestyle like crossfit. I’m kidding… but not really. The passion and commitment these groups share for their beliefs and choices is comparable. For vegans, their beliefs surrounding their choice to not eat animal products represents part of their core values and worldview. It goes beyond electing to drink nut milk over cow’s milk; it extends to positions on environmental policy, farming practices and use of natural resources. Being involved with anything contrary to their beliefs will literally bring them to their knees. I’m not kidding; I once watched my best gal pal cry herself to the ground in the driveway of our apartment after a lunch time pasta sauce mix up at work. The very idea that she “might” have eaten sauce that contained meat was enough for her to risk oil stains on a very cute jumper. Vegans don’t play.
So when raising children, how does this kind of passion manifest? Do practicing vegans raise their children to share their values and dietary choices? Or is the real question, why wouldn’t they? Like any other parent. Well one reason causing many vegans much apprehension is a very heated public and legal debate regarding the safety of rearing children on a vegan diet. With the media and many folks calling serving children a plant based diet “child endangerment” and even “neglect”, vegans and non-vegans alike are debating, reflecting, and researching on whether or not a vegan diet offers the essentials for child development.
Veganism in the News
If you have been reading news headlines on the topic since the early 2000s, the overwhelming answer is “Hells no!” There have been a slew of cases and reports of vegan children being discovered severely malnourished, developmentally delayed, deceased with rickets, and even dead. In 2008, in Amiens, France, an 11-month-old baby girl Louise was found to have died from complications of Vitamin A and B12 deficiency after being only fed her vegan mother’s breast milk. Breast milk is widely regarded as the perfect food for infants. However, a recent article in the New York Times covering a vegan infant fatality found, “[v]egan breast milk lacks enough docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the omega-3 fat found in fatty fish [among other vital nutrients].”
But what about children who are given plant based alternatives to breast milk? In 2007, a vegan couple from Atlanta were sentenced to life in prison after their 6-week-old died of malnourishment after being fed a diet that largely consisted of soy milk and apple juice. In 2016, the Italian media was up in arms over “another vegan trial” involving the hospitalization of a 2-year-old child for severe malnutrition. This case along with a string of others in the country prompted Italian law makers to propose consideration of legislation prohibiting children under 16 from following a vegan diet.
While some cases easily have us scratching our heads, wondering basic vegan 101:
- Where were the supplements?
- Why would someone give a child soy milk and not a soy based formula designed to provide balanced nutrition?
- Were these really cases about Veganism or really just neglect?
In some cases, it seems an easy call. While others aren’t so straight forward. Like in the case of Sarah Markham; a Florida mom with a degree in health science. In 2014, she had her child removed after her paediatrician disagreed with her choice to supplement her breast feeding with a soy based vegan formula after her son experienced an episode of dehydration. An all out-legal slugfest ensued requiring Ms. Markham to undergo mental health evaluations, drug evaluations, and parenting classes before her child was returned to her care. The Markham camp felt that this was all a result of her challenging her doctor’s advice on how to treat the boy and the doctor not agreeing with her Christian Seventh-day Adventist, holistic healing, and vegan diet systems of beliefs. Good Lord.
With proper monitoring and supplementation, can a vegan diet provide proper nutrition for optimal child development?
Many, vegans and professionals alike, believe it can without a doubt. In fact, many, like Fulvia Serra from Colorado who is raising her 1-year-old son Sebastiano as a vegan, feel “pinning bad parenting on a vegan diet are unfair on those who have done their homework.” The American Academy of Pediatrics’ book Pediatric Nutrition describes how with careful dietary planning “it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans.”
So what exactly are the nutritional concerns of a vegan diet for children? Getting enough B-12 is the major concern in a vegan diet as the only natural source of the nutrient comes from animals and animal products. So, supplementing B-12 is an absolute necessity for vegans and even more so for babies and children as it is necessary for neurological development. For children, deficiencies in B-12 can mean permanent brain damage. Lack of vitamin D and calcium can result in rickets causing stunted growth and bone deformity. Other key nutrients like vitamin A, iron and zinc can also have dangerous effects if deficient. Sheela Magge, an endocrinologist at the Children’s National Health System, said in her article with the Daily Mail There’s a right way and a wrong way:
For children in general you can have a safe vegan diet, but it has to be in consultation with a paediatrician or health care provider. These are critical times in brain development, and it has to be done carefully.
When it comes to our kids and their well being, can we ever be too careful? While it may not be politically correct to say so, not all diets are created equal. They just aren’t. There are reasons. There are no indigenous vegan societies. The vegan diet isn’t adequate on its own. It requires supplementation, careful planning, monitoring, and more monitoring, and careful planning, and… You get the picture. There is no one size fits all answer to proper nutrition as individual needs differ. But the fallout can be disastrous and have lifelong consequences. An ounce of precaution is – very much – worth a pound of cure. As parents − vegan or not − it’s important to be humble and open; we never know what value someone could offer or add. Talk with health care providers; seek the help of a nutritionist; ask questions; and monitor your child (children) closely. And most importantly, ask yourself, “Is there anything you believe in or care about more than the health and safety of your children?” Because that’s what’s on the table.
Featured Image: Kelly Sikkema | Unsplash
Image 1: Daiga Ellaby | Unsplash
Image 2: Natalie Walters | Unsplash