Raising Vegan Children: Healthy or Harmful?
It’s Earth Day and chances are you’ve considered how what goes on your plate, today of all days, may affect our planet.
How many times have you heard:
“Eating meat is bad for the planet” or “Eating meat is connected to a plethora of health conditions”?
There is even a campaign entitled “Go Vegan for the Earth Day” led by a well know group based on animal advocacy.
But simply avoiding animal products does not necessarily equate to a healthy way of eating.
If we’re approaching the topic from a sustainability angle, we must also consider, then, that while some of the ingredients used in many a product labeled as vegan do not, in fact, contain any animal-based ingredients yet simultaneously also do not contain much nutrition.
As one relatable example, let’s look at soy.
Soy crops affect the Earth’s climate, generating significant amounts of greenhouse gases (1).
Toxic chemicals from soy production contaminate the forest, poison rivers, destroy wildlife and cause birth defects in humans (2).
Conversion of forests to soy plantations (or any other crop, for that matter) in the Amazon is a threat to the climate (3).
Granted, we’ve come a long way since the days when soy protein was the only option for those looking for a plant protein, but suffice to say it’s still a popular choice among many.
Consider specifically for purposes of this article, that over one-quarter of American babies given formula are consuming one made of soy-based ingredients (4).
Rationale for giving a soy-based formula may vary from one mother to another, but let’s explore if this choice is made based on the premise that a vegetarian diet is the healthiest one to give a baby or young child.
“Grain- , bean- and soy- based diets are not nutritionally adequate and certainly miss the mark on optimal nourishment for your growing baby” (5).
Super Nutrition for Babies, by Erlich + Genzlinger, was a book I found extremely helpful during creating my own son’s first foods, not only to ensure I was hitting the mark on all I was feeding him, but to further illustrate just how crucial it is to feed an authentic Paleo diet* to young children to ensure optimal development on all fronts.
(*Call it Paleo, call it traditional… call it what you like – it’s just about eating the very same foods our families ate a few generations ago before food was an industry based on the bottom dollar and not the health of humanity).
“Plant based diets have mineral-blockers, enzyme inhibitors, protein digestion blockers, poorly absorbed minerals, digestive irritants, are inflammatory, tend to be high in sugars and deficient in nutrients critical for healthy growth and development”.
“Animal foods are so important in ensuring proper growth and height, strength and intelligence that researchers contest it is unhealthy not to include animal foods in a child’s diet”.
“Vegan diets fare even worse, after extensive research (6) on the criticality of animal foods on children’s health, there is no question it is unethical to bring children up as strict vegans”.
The key, of course, is making sure the animal protein we are giving our children (and ourselves) is properly sourced.
The “Organic” Label isn’t enough; you’ll want to look for:
Beef. Look for Grass-fed and finished. (the ‘and finished’ part is crucial; even adding grain to the last few weeks of a cow’s life can significantly change the composition on its meat, and reduce the nutrient density to whomever is eating it. Cattle are not required to have a full grass-fed diet in order to get the grass-fed label on your beef’s packaging. Moreover, “grass-fed” cows are not necessarily pasture-raised. At the grocery store, that means grass-finished beef may be marketed as grass-fed beef, but not vice versa. And, keep in mind that “grass-fed” cows are not necessarily pasture-raised (7).
Chicken. Free range is not enough; it simply means that chickens have “access to the outdoors.” Sounds reasonable, right? Except that 99.99% of modern day conventional chicken is raised in what’s called a “grow house,” a 600ft long x 40ft wide tunnel packed with 30,000-40,000 chickens (8). Pasture raised can be better, but as there is no legal definition for it, your best bet is to go straight to the farm. EatWild.org can be a great resource in locating sustainable chicken providers if you do not have access to a local farmer’s market.
For other animal proteins, it can get even trickier with misleading labeling. Once again, your best bet is to do your detective work and ask questions. Get as close to the farm as you can and refuse to settle for something labeled as organic simply because it’s convenient and priced well to but it at your local grocery store. Perhaps it’ll cost less from a dollar perspective, but much, much more from a sustainability and health (for you and for the planet) perspective.
I recall a client year ago, a mom of four children who had followed a strict vegan diet for years prior to and through her first pregnancy.
When she began to suffer from gut dysbiosis and turned to a more traditional diet in order to heal her gut, she couldn’t believe how quickly she began to feel better. Accordingly, she began to implement similar foods to the meals she’d provide to her family. The next three pregnancies were far smoother and less problematic for her; she had more energy, better digestion and zero brain fog. And the three younger children were all taller, had an easier time at school and were rarely sick, even including the common cold.
The thing that weighed most heavily on her was a regret she carried for not having the information she later had earlier on, prior to having her first born.
It’s not her ‘fault’; there is no fault. It’s all about learning and self-education. It would be wonderful if all our food choices and messaging around them were honest and based completely on what serves a body best.
However, given that this ideal is not reflected in the current food industry, it’s up to each of us to do our research and share with our families, and our communities.
Erlich, Kathy, and Kelly Genzlinger. “Chapter 2.” Super Nutrition for Babies: The Best Way to Nourish Your Baby from Birth to 24 Months, Fair Winds, Beverly, MA, 2018.
Lindsay Allen, PhD, Professor, International Nutrition, UC Davis