Raising children as vegan: a healthy alternative
- Published: 10 June 2011
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Children consuming a healthy vegan diet experience vibrant health and do not suffer from many of the ailments that a typical western diet promotes, writes Alison Waters.
11 June 2011
Veganism is largely maligned by our society, and there is very little understanding of the philosophy that underpins it. Vegan parents are subjected to scare-mongering, ill-informed news pieces and unreliable nutrition advice from industry groups with vested interests. Critics of vegan diets ignore the fact that an inadequate western diet is failing children.
“If you look at the cold hard facts of whether you can have a young baby on a vegan diet…you cannot meet its [sic] nutrient requirements and it can be very dangerous,” asserts Clare Collins, professor of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle. Collins states that babies on “no-meat, no-dairy diets” may suffer from deficiencies in protein, calcium, iron and zinc.
These remarks feature in a recent article on Australia’s news.com.au by Sharon Labi. The article, titled Vegan babies: are they at risk?, has the potential to promote anxiety in parents of young vegan children. Emotive language is peppered throughout the article: vegan diets are referred to as ‘extreme’, and ‘inappropriate’ for babies; the parents of Louise Le Moaligou, a French baby who died of pneumonia, are referred to as “militant vegans”.
Labi creates the impression that the death and disability of vegan babies is a regular occurrence: “Sadly the [French] case...is not an isolated one. Australian paediatricians say they have seen the babies of vegans and others on extreme diets so malnourished it has irreversibly affected their brain development, damaging them for life”.
Despite Labi’s assertion that the death of a baby of “militant vegans” is not “an isolated [case]”, she provides no other examples of the death of vegan children or children of vegans.
Moreover, the death of baby Louise was not attributed to veganism by the presiding judge. According to an article in the Guardian, a doctor who gave evidence in the case stated that Louise “was in good health” when he saw her three months before her death.
He rejected links earlier made between Louise’s death and her mother's vegan diet by the state attorney. The doctor asserted: “I saw an eight-month-old child breastfed by her vegan mother and found her in perfect health”.
Clearly, Labi’s article paints an incomplete picture of the case.
Labi’s article is reminiscent of another emotive and fear-mongering article. In 2007, Nina Planck sparked controversy with an op ed for The New York Times. In Death by Veganism, Planck writes about a vegan couple who were convicted of the murder of their six-week-old son, Crown.
She uses this tragic event to launch in to a tirade against veganism. Planck proclaims: “I was once a vegan. But well before I became pregnant, I concluded that a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible”.
Planck declares that “babies are built from protein, calcium, cholesterol and fish oil. Children fed only plants will not get the precious things they need to live and grow”.
Parents of healthy, vibrant vegan children will beg to differ. As a mum of three tiny vegans, I am aware that our family is ‘going against the grain’ by subscribing to a vegan ethos.
However, I have never believed that our lifestyle was extreme or posed a risk to my children. Furthermore, articles like Labi’s imply that veganism is merely a “diet” – an extreme and dangerous one.
Veganism is more than a “diet”.
When I became vegan 15 years ago, I was motivated by compassion and empathy; once I awoke to the reality of the lives (and deaths) of non-human “food” animals, I could no longer contribute to their misery. I believe that an animal’s life is more precious and important than my taste buds.
I agree with Bob and Jenna Torres’ affirmation: “Our very diet is a form of living protest we enact at every meal.Veganism is our lived expression of our own ethics.”
Veganism, for me, is a deeply held value system, a philosophy, a way of life. It is not a “diet”. Naturally, the provision of vibrant and healthy plant-based foods is a vital facet of my vegan parenting; ensuring that my children reach their full physical and cognitive potential.
However, food is just the “tip of the iceberg”. Vegan parenting involves imparting my children with a vegan ethos – values that they will adopt and embrace as their own.
It is inconceivable to me that I would raise my children without promoting my beliefs and values to them. Vegan parents are often asked if they will “allow” their children to eat meat when they are older; will we let them choose to be other than vegan?
These types of questions imply that non-veganism is the “standard” or the “norm”; certainly it is more common to be non-vegan.
However, non-veganism or carnism (as Melanie Joy refers to it), is not value-free. Non-vegans or carnists are inculcating their children with a largely “invisible belief system” – the belief that it is acceptable for (some) non-human animals to endure enslavement and torture for the appetites of humans.
The Standard Australian/American Diet is making kids sick
Labi’s article is quick to judge veganism for its so-called “deficiencies” and “dangers”. However, Labi does not place the same spotlight on the “diet” that represents her carnist belief system – the Standard Australian/American Diet (known as “SAD”).
The SAD or typical Western diet poses health problems for children, including early stage atherosclerosis (known as ‘fatty streak development’), obesity, snotty noses, ear infections, stomach aches, and headaches.
Dr Joel Fuhrman, author of Disease-Proof Your Child, states that “The modern diet that most children are eating today creates a fertile cellular environment for cancer to emerge at a later age...In other words, childhood diets create adult cancers”.
When children are fed junk food rather than fruits and vegetables, he argues, “the groundwork may be laid for cancer and other diseases down the road”.
Fuhrman asserts that it is very common for today’s children to be afflicted with recurrent ear infections, allergies, and asthma. He warns that, later in life, they “may develop autoimmune illnesses such as lupus, ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis”.
Fuhrman stresses that these illnesses are not a result of children’s “bad genes” or the spreading of childhood germs. Rather, they are due to “inadequate” diets.
In 2007, the Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that 17% of the children in the study were overweight, while 6% were classified as obese. The researchers found that sodium consumption exceeded the recommended upper level of intake in all age groups, and a majority of children failed to meet the guidelines for saturated fat and sugar intake.
The survey concludes: “The net result is that significant levels of micronutrient deficiency were detected in the children and the levels of underweight, overweight and obesity are a concern.”
Lamentably, only 14% of Australian babies are exclusively breastfed at six months of age despite World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that “exclusive breastfeeding for six months is the optimal way of feeding infants”.
Moreover, WHO asserts that “infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond”. In Australia, only 23.3% of infants are breastfeeding at 12 months of age.
Vegan diets are not dangerous for young children
In 2007, Amy Lanou, PhD and expert witness, wrote an opinion piece – Health by Veganism: A Question of Responsibilityto set the record straight about baby Crown’s death and the alleged role of veganism. Lanou asserts that “Vegan diets are not only safe for babies; they’re healthier than ones based on animal products.”
An article in Pediatrics in Review, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, discusses vegan diets for children: ...“although there havebeen case reports of children failing to thrive or developingcobalamin [B12] deficiency on vegan diets, these are rare exceptions” (my emphasis).
The article states that “multiple experts have concluded independently that vegan dietscan be followed safely by infants and children without compromiseof nutrition or growth and with some notable health benefits”.
Paediatricians who work with vegan families are advised to “ensure that theparents understand the special nutritional needs of childrenat different developmental stages and assist them in meetingthose needs within the framework of their beliefs” (my emphasis).
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) states that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”.
The ADA affirms that a well-planned vegan diet “can supply all the nutrients that children require for their growth and energy needs”. They advise vegan parents to ensure that their children are given good sources of protein, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
Vitamin B12 and veganism
Labi’s article includes an account of a 10-month-old Australian baby who reportedly experienced malnutrition and extreme developmental delay as a result of the (vegan) mother’s failure to take B12 supplements while breastfeeding.
John McDougall, a physician and nutrition expert, states that vegan diets are deficient in vitamin B12 – unless supplements are taken. However, he asserts that “an otherwise healthy strict vegetarian’s (ie vegan’s) risk of developing a disease from B12 deficiency by following a sensible diet is extremely rare – less than one chance in a million”.
McDougall states that there are only a small number of cases of B12 deficiency attributed to a plant-based diet. He argues that the majority of reported cases of B12 deficiency in children are complex. Other factors – such as malnutrition, parental neglect and underlying disease – are usually involved.
Despite the small number of cases, most have made “front page news”, according to McDougall. By comparison, he argues, there are “1.25 million heart attacks (half [of them] fatal) annually in the USA that get almost no media attention and are accepted as part of our modern way of life”.
In a world where lobby groups, big business and industry groups influence nutrition and health information, it is little wonder that some parents regard a plant-based diet as inadequate for their children’s growth and development.
T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study asserts that a shift to a plant-based diet would eliminate many of the western world’s health ailments. However, he argues that, “powerful, influential and enormously wealthy industries” would lose vast amounts of money if this were to occur as “their financial health” is dependent on controlling the public’s knowledge of health and nutrition.
As a “system insider”, Campbell learned that science “is not always the honest search for truth”. He discovered that the “common good” was often sacrificed for the sake of “money, power, ego, and protection of personal interests”. Moreover, the distinction between science, government and industry often becomes blurred.
“It is a common misconception that vegetables and nuts are a rich source of calcium ... research has shown that is difficult to rely on plant foods to meet daily calcium needs”.
Conveniently, according to Dairy Australia, dairy foods “are the richest source of calcium in the Australian diet”.
for supporting bone health.
In fact, several studies such as this one by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the US and this British one debunk these myths and even go so far as to point to dairy as being implicated in a number of killer diseases, as well as childhood conditions such as allergies and anaemia.
Living vegan in a non-vegan society
Veganism is largely maligned in our society, and there is very little understanding of the philosophy that underpins it. Unfortunately, vegan parents are subjected to fear-mongering, ill-informed news pieces and unreliable nutrition advice from industry groups with vested interests.
However, the weight of research is in our favour – even if we have to dig deep to find it! Children require foods that are vibrant, health-promoting and plant-based. They deserve to be given foods that nurture their growing bodies, helping them to reach their full physical and cognitive potential.
Vegan children do not experience many of the health ailments endured by children who consume the inadequate Standard Australian/American Diet.
Crucially, for me, my children are not being inculcated into a carnist belief system. To them, there is no distinction between a dog and a pig – each deserves our care, respect and compassion.
And that makes my heart sing.
Alison Waters is a freelance writer who holds Bachelor degrees in Social Work and Arts (Welfare Studies). She works in the area of family violence, and enjoys writing about vegan parenting and animal rights. She is the mother of three healthy vegan children.