Last week, I reviewed Vegan Is Love, a children's book that explains the reasons behind the choice to go vegan. It contains a page dedicated to the health aspect of the lifestyle, but most of the book is devoted to outlining the ethics of veganism -- how animals are treated on the dairy farm, at the circus, and in the testing lab. One read-through of the beautiful book would convince most people that a vegan diet might be appealing to many sensitive, animal-loving children. That's probably why the book caused such a fearful uproar in some circles. But it still leaves one question unanswered: Is a vegan diet a healthful option for kids?
I went to Lisa Dorfman, board certified sports dietitian, registered dietitian, licensed mental health counselor, director of the Masters in Nutrition for Health & Human Performance Program in the Department of Kinesiology & Sport Sciences at University of Miami, and author of four books on nutrition including the The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide. In addition to these accomplishments, she's been a vegetarian since the age of 15, run 34 marathons, been a professional triathlete, and had three healthy pregnancies. So I figured she was a relatively qualified person to consult on the matter. She outlined three main points of what people want to keep in mind when raising vegan kids.
1. Make Sure They Are Consuming Enough Calories
"Knowing what your nutritional needs are for how many calories are necessary to support your activities and your growth when it comes to the case of kids is absolutely critical."
2. Find Vegan Protein Sources Kids Like
"Protein is magical in the way that it does a lot of things in the body. It helps with growth, repair, the immune system. It builds collagen so that your skin, your hair, your tendons - everything that sort of glues you together is in tact. It helps with enzymes and hormones. But protein is overestimated," she added.
"What's important about protein is to get the nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. It's like having all the players on the field at the same time." She said it's important for vegan kids to get a spectrum of foods to ensure they get all of the essential amino acids. Soy products, quinoa, and spirulina are all plant sources of complete protein, but kids can get all the essential amino acids by "mixing and matching," or eating a broad variety of incomplete protein sources (like nut butters, vegetables, and legumes) as well.
3. Feed Vegan Kids a Broad Variety of Foods
"Get a variety of all foods that give you all the vitamins and minerals that will help you to use all that wonderful energy that you're taking in," Dorfman advised. "Make sure they're getting enough vitamins and minerals and omega threes, which are essential for nerve sheaths and our brain cells and to help protect our joints from inflammation, as well as good fats which are anti-inflammatory and help us to absorb fat soluble vitamins." Good sources of these fats and omegas include nuts like walnuts and almonds, and seeds like pumpkin, sunflower, chia, and ground flax.
Dorfman said that many vegan products are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin D, iron, and B-12, but that supplementation is a good idea for both vegan and non-vegan children because a body's ability to absorb these nutrients varies greatly with the individual.
As helpful as these guidelines are, what does a parent do if a vegan kid is super choosy and refuses to eat some of the healthy foods he needs? After all, most adults have trouble adjusting to the earthy, dirty flavor and dense green look of spirulina. The average child would probably spit it out in a slimy green cloud of disgust.
Dorfman said that parents of vegan children, just like parents of omnivorous children, have three great options to ensure they're brood are eating what they need: getting kids involved in the food prep process, creating exciting food presentations, and "hiding" the healthy stuff kids resist inside foods they like.
"With any child, you want to make food fun. Make the food come alive. Make little eyes with the raisins. Plant-based foods are very happy foods. They're not negative smelling. I used to have candles lit when I ate with my kids, because every meal is special," Dorfman said.
As far as sneaking in healthy stuff a child doesn't favor, Dorfman had these ideas. "Muffins, smoothies, soup, and vegan lasagna are great places to disguise less appealing veggies or additives for kids who are picky," Dorfman said.
Snacks she recommends for vegan youngsters include soy yogurt with berries, almonds, goji berries, almond cheese with apple slices, tart organic cherry juice, and soy-based breakfast bars. She says to avoid genetically modified (GMO) foods whenever possible.
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"When I first became a vegetarian 30 years ago, there were potatoes and bread. Now there's a whole world out there for vegetarians. It's wonderful," she added.
So in answer to the question "Is veganism safe for kids?" here's Dorfman's bottom line:
"The typical American diet is pre-packaged food that's concocted from compounds and commercially created food-like substances. The American diet is pretty scary," Dorfman said. "Basically, the vegan diet can be superior in ensuring more antioxidants, less saturated fat and cholesterol, and less of the toxins that have contributed to chronic disease in the 21st century."