Published 5 December 2014
Mention ‘vegan’ and ‘child’ in the same sentence, then sit back and brace yourself.
Everyone has an opinion on vegan kids. Many think it’s too restrictive a diet and therefore couldn’t be healthy. Others claim vegan children are more likely to develop brain damage due to a lack of vitamin B12—they say such dietary choices are akin to child abuse.
Vegans eliminate all animal products from their diet; dairy, eggs, and even honey are strictly off the menu. Can a child who is vegan from birth grow up happy and healthy? Is the vegan lifestyle hard for them to adhere to, and whose choice is it really, the child’s or the parents’?
Everything I had read about vegan children was from the point of view of the adults, so I decided to ask the kids themselves what they thought about growing up vegan.
Thirteen-year-old Mitch is an unusual child in many ways. Incredibly bright and energetic, he bounces around the room like a penned kangaroo. He wants to talk to me about veganism because it means so much to him, but his words are accompanied by a furrowed brow and tight wringing of the hands.
Mitch was vegetarian from birth, but at four, the early reader saw an article on battery hens that disturbed him so much he told his mother he didn’t want to eat eggs any more. Since then the whole family has been vegan.
‘My parents were certainly an influence, but I was the one who looked at the magazine and made my own mind up that I didn’t want to participate in the horrible treatment of these hens,’ he says.
‘I like having peace of mind because I am not destroying the environment or contributing to animal cruelty or impacting my own health negatively. Animals are killed, they are basically tortured. They have to live in small cages with faeces everywhere and then they are killed which is obviously not very ethical.’
‘There’s the environment, because the forests have to be cut down to graze cattle. Animal agriculture is very inefficient; you have feed 10 times the amount of grain to a cow if you want one unit of meat. Then there’s my own health—there’s been numerous studies linking consumption of animal products to so-called “lifestyle diseases” like heart disease and early death.’
Mitch’s nine-year-old sister Imogen and friend Eloise, eight, agree that for them animal cruelty is a driving force behind their rejection of animal products.
Eloise says she is not even tempted by dairy milk chocolate: ‘It will have milk from a cow and even though you think milk’s OK, they kill the babies so they can have the milk. Milk is just for baby cows.’
The attitude of his peers is of concern to Mitch.
‘I’ve met a lot of children in my school who have no compassion. It’s all been taken out of them by popular culture and their parents. I wish people had a concern for animals and the environment and their own health,’ he says.
‘If we want to ensure that humans and other species survive we have to stop impacting the environment and it’s up to us to educate people about their choices and how they impact the world in which we live. It’s up to us to improve how we live and make sure that this planet can sustain us and the other organisms that live here.’
Eloise nails the issue of denial around where our food comes from, which is often an uncomfortable truth for young children.
‘If you’re a kid you go to a farm and you like playing with lambs and sheep and stuff but when you’re having pizza afterwards you wouldn’t know that they’re in the pizza. They wouldn’t know they are eating the baby lamb they have been playing with,’ says Eloise.
Mitch’s mother Robyn is a naturopath who consults with clients wanting to adopt a plant-based diet. She has a bachelor of health sciences degree and has researched vegan diets exhaustively.
‘Children have a natural compassion for animals. There’s actually really strong evidence that their moral development is compromised by these artificial distinctions that adults make between the animals that we care for as pets like our dogs and cats, versus the food animals,’ says Robyn.
‘Children do have this natural empathy for animals and once children understand that what they are eating is the body of an animal or the milk or the eggs of the animal, they don’t want to be part of it. And they are capable of making that decision.’
However, the Dietitians Association of Australia doesn’t recommend a vegan diet for children in the first years of life when it says children are most vulnerable. The association recommends children in this age group consume at the very least dairy products and eggs. It says that for older children a well-planned vegan diet with vitamin B12 and D supplements can be sustainable, but parents must be well informed about the dietary requirements of children.
‘The Dietitians Association of Australia is out of step with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines, it’s also out of step with the American Dietetic Association so it is, quite frankly, a minority position,’ she says.
‘In terms of whether Imogen got what she needed, I just look at her. She’s an outstandingly healthy child and very tall for her age, active and intelligent.’
The NHMCR’s Australian Dietary Guidelines 2013 note that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally adequate.
‘For infants being fed a vegan diet, the mother is encouraged to breastfed for as long as possible; two years or more is desirable,’ a NHMRC spokesperson says.
However, critics of vegan diets for children claim there’s not enough energy in the fibre-rich diet to give kids all the calories they need to grow. A 1988 study of British vegan children found their energy intake was consistently lower than the recommended daily amount and that low fat intake contributed to this particularly between the ages of two and four years.
This study also found that calcium and vitamin D intakes were below the recommended amounts and ‘the majority of the children grew and developed normally but they did tend to be smaller in stature and lighter in weight than standards for the general population’.
However, the same 1988 study also found that vegan children can ‘grow up as normal children’, stating that ‘there was no evidence their intellectual functioning was impaired or that the vegan diet affected their physical stamina’.
The children I spoke to all said they didn’t feel they missed out while on a vegan diet, even at birthday parties, because there were always vegan options. Mitch says those who think a vegan diet is too restrictive to be healthy should take a look at their own diets.
‘Most people who would say that probably don’t eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and other things. They probably eat the same meal multiple times a week. There are so many vegan foods, fruits and vegetables and nuts out there,’ he says.
Robyn says her children have always been healthy. Last year when she took Imogen to get her vitamin B12 and vitamin D levels checked, she realised it was the first time her daughter had been to the doctor.
‘She’d never had tonsillitis, middle-ear infection, or the flu. Never had gastro, asthma, eczema, no allergies, nothing. Both my kids began in a Montessori school so they were in the festering swamp known as pre-school at a really early age getting lots of exposure and neither of my children got those diseases.’
Many nine-year olds hate to be different and will go to great lengths to fit in with their friends, but not Imogen.
‘No, I think of it the other way round; does it bother them that I am vegan? They always seem to not really go that close to me like they’ll catch a virus or something. Except my BFFs [best friends forever].’
Children, especially young children, can change their minds on what sometimes seems like an hourly basis. However, these children all saw veganism as a life-long choice.
‘I don’t know if I will have kids but if I did they would most certainly be vegan,’ Mitch says. ‘I don’t see how you could change your mind on something like this. You see the truth and decide it’s not OK; the next week you don’t decide it’s OK again. That just doesn’t happen with veganism.’
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