We’ve all seen those mamas on Instagram. You know the ones I’m talking about – vegan, plant-based goddesses with beautiful, glowing skin holding their gorgeous (and also vegan) barefoot babes on their hip (in ethically sourced, organic cotton onesies no less). Seemingly, their children look like the picture of health. But is veganism really all it’s cracked up to be? Can kids really get enough nutrients on a vegan diet? The answer is…it takes serious mom gymnastics.
Helping your family adopt a diet that is rich in plant foods, and teaching your kids that “healthy” does not mean “boring” is the best way to ensure that kids grow into healthy and well-nourished adults.
Just so we’re all on the same page, veganism is the strictest form of vegetarianism. Vegans eschew all animal products, including fish, eggs, and dairy. When done right, veganism can be an incredibly healthy diet – it is correlated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer, combined with the environmental benefit of leaving a smaller carbon footprint.
However, ensuring your little one is well-nourished on a vegan diet can be quite challenging. This lifestyle is not for the faint of heart – and parents need to be especially vigilant, as the consequences of children not meeting their needs through this diet can be very severe – we’re talking cognitive delays, anemia, growth stunting and in some very rare but very sad occurrences, even death. But, before we start ringing alarm bells, let me reassure you, this diet can be done, and done well, but it takes serious commitment. I’m a solutions kind of gal, so I’m going to break down the issues involved with this lifestyle – and how families can work to solve them, ensuring everyone is healthy, happy, and well-nourished.
The Issue: A vegan diet alone may not be nutritionally adequate to meet a growing child’s needs.
Unfortunately, many nutrients are poorly absorbed or simply nonexistent in plant form. At the top of this list is vitamin B-12 (this one is only available from animals) and omega-3 fatty acids. Supplementation is crucial to help vegan kids meet their needs of these vital nutrients. Vitamin B-12 supplements are available as a gel, nasal spray or sublingual tablet (dissolves under the tongue) and algae-derived, vegan-friendly omega-3 fatty acid supplements are available in pill or liquid dropper form. Other nutrients of concern include calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and iron. Educating yourself on your child’s favorite foods that are rich in these nutrients is a great way to ensure that you can regularly work them into your child’s diet.
Depending on your child and their eating habits, additional supplementation may be necessary. Make sure to keep your pediatrician informed of your family’s food choices so that she can properly monitor your child and make sure your child is meeting her needs and hitting her developmental and growth milestones. If you are a new vegan, you may want to consider enlisting the help of a dietitian to give you guidance on how to eat a variety of plant foods, recipes, and other tips and tricks to keep your whole family well-nourished.
The Issue: Kids can become unhealthy vegans.
Let’s face it, kids can be weird about food! Even the healthiest of eaters may go through picky-eating periods. This is particularly common in the toddler set, when kids are learning to demonstrate their independence, not just through words, but also through actions (i.e. I will only eat pasta and rice for every meal). But, prolonged periods of homogenous eating can lead to serious consequences, especially for the vegan child. As mentioned previously, supplementation is critical to avoid long-term deficiencies. However, supplementation isn’t enough. Variety is the spice of life, and the phrase could not ring truer when it comes to the vegan child. A well-balanced and varied diet will ensure that your child is meeting all her needs. While veganism is certainly a more plant-focused diet, vegan children can easily fall into the trap of eating too many processed and junk foods, just like any other child. Providing a combination of fruits, vegetables, cereals, whole grains, legumes, nuts/seeds and some soy products (especially fortified soy milk or soy yogurt) is a recipe for success.
The Issue: When everyone else at the birthday party is eating cheese pizza and cupcakes, being the odd kid out can be socially isolating.
Social issues that may arise from raising vegan kids are perhaps the most difficult to overcome because they are somewhat out of your control as a parent. While veganism is becoming more mainstream, most families do not ascribe to a vegan lifestyle. Being the “different” kid is never easy. There are several ways that vegan families can overcome these hurdles. Engage your child in age-appropriate conversations about why your family eats differently than other families and give your child the tools to help them explain the “why” to other kids. Empower your child to ask for vegan friendly options when warranted. Keep the communication open with other adults that interact with your child on a regular basis – such as teachers, caretakers, and extended family. More often than not, people are happy to accommodate different dietary needs. At birthday parties, family events and other social gatherings, plan to bring your own vegan-friendly (but no less delicious) treats for your child. Finally, be prepared that your child may not always want to be vegan. Around the time that your child enters adolescence, they may want to experiment and try non-vegan foods. Be open to those discussions and encourage a dialogue, rather than shame or secrecy regarding your child’s food choices.
The bottom line: Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or anywhere in between – helping your family adopt a diet that is rich in plant foods, and teaching your kids that “healthy” does not mean “boring” is the best way to ensure that kids grow into healthy and well-nourished adults. And that’s a win-win for everyone!
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Are your kids vegan? We would love to hear more in the comments section.