Vegan Children: Healthy and Happy
Children raised as vegans—who consume no animal products, including meat, eggs, and dairy products—can derive all the nutrients essential for optimum health from plant-based sources.
Hot Dogs, Heart Disease, and Upset Stomachs
Unprecedented rates of children raised on the “traditional” American diet of cholesterol and saturated fat–laden chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and pepperoni pizza show symptoms of heart disease, the number one killer of adults. The American Heart Association cautions parents that atherosclerosis (fatty deposits on arterial walls) can begin in childhood and advises daily multiple servings of fruits and vegetables as one way of establishing and maintaining good heart health.(1) Unfortunately, hot dogs, sausage, and bacon are on the standard daily menu for 25 percent of kids between the ages of 19 months and 2 years.(2)
The number of obese preschool-age children and 12- to 19-year-old adolescents has more than tripled since the 1970s and quadrupled for 6- to 11-year-olds.(3) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an alarming increase in the number of children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a disease that typically affects adults, and most of those cases involve obese kids.(4)
Acclaimed pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote in his book Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, “Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meats … are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.”(5)
Food-related illnesses affect more than 76 million people annually and kill more than 5,000.(6) Consumer Reports found that two-thirds of chickens studied were infected with either salmonella or campylobacter or both.(7) Eggs pose a salmonella threat to approximately one out of every 50 people each year in some parts of the U.S.(8) E. coli is a type of bacteria that can be deadly and sickens more than 62,000 people each year, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that most of the cattle slaughtered for food in the U.S. are likely infected with it.(9)
Fish flesh also presents health problems. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), residual industrial compounds that can still be found in the environment, have caused cancer in animals and skin problems and liver damage in humans.(10) Fish flesh has been found to harbor levels of PCBs thousands of times higher than those in the water that the fish live in.(11) Fish also accumulate methylmercury in their bodies, and pregnant women and children have been cautioned by the Environmental Protection Agency not to eat fish flesh that may contain high levels of this toxic substance.(12)
Dangers of Dairy Products
According to Dr. Frank Oski, the former director of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, “There is no reason to drink cow’s milk at any time in your life. It was designed for calves, it was not designed for humans, and we should all stop drinking it today, this afternoon.”(13) Dr. Spock agreed, saying, “[T]here was a time when cow’s milk was considered very desirable. But research, along with clinical experience, has forced doctors and nutritionists to rethink this recommendation.”(14)
Cow’s milk is the number one cause of food allergies in infants and children, according to the American Gastroenterological Association.(15) Millions of Americans are lactose-intolerant, and an estimated 80 percent of African-Americans and up to 100 percent of Native Americans and Asian-Americans suffer from the condition, which can include symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramps, vomiting, headaches, rashes, or asthma.(16) As early as 2 years of age, most people begin to produce less lactase, the enzyme that helps with the digestion of milk. This reduction can lead to lactose-intolerance.(17) Breast-feeding mothers should also shun cow’s milk from their diets, as the proteins can be transferred to infants and upset babies’ intestines.(18)
Some common childhood ailments such as chronic ear infections, asthma, and skin conditions can also be eliminated if cow’s milk is avoided.(19)
Nutrition in Vegan Diets
Nutritionists and physicians have learned that plant products are good sources of protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin D because they can be easily absorbed by the body and don’t contain artery-clogging fat. The American Dietetic Association states, “Well-planned vegan … diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”(20)
The following is a list of nutrients and the ways that you can get them in a vegan diet:
- Protein: In the United States, consumption of too much protein is a much bigger issue than not getting enough. Protein deficiency is common only in countries suffering from famine. Children can get all the protein that their bodies need from whole grains in the form of oats, brown rice, and pasta; nuts and seeds, including sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, and spreads such as tahini and peanut butter; and legumes, including tofu, lentils, and beans.
- Iron: Some babies’ intestines bleed after drinking cow’s milk, increasing their risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia, since the blood that they’re losing contains iron.(21) Formula-fed babies should be fed a soy-based formula with added iron to minimize the risk of intestinal bleeding. Iron-rich foods such as raisins, almonds, dried apricots, blackstrap molasses, and fortified grain cereals will meet the needs of toddlers and children 12 months and older. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, so foods rich in both—such as green, leafy vegetables—are particularly valuable.(22)
- Calcium: Cornbread, broccoli, kale, tofu, dried figs, tahini, great northern beans, blackstrap molasses, and fortified orange juice and soy milk are all excellent sources of calcium. As with iron, vitamin C will help your child’s system absorb calcium efficiently.
- Vitamin D: Cow’s milk does not naturally contain vitamin D; it’s added later. Vitamin D–enriched soy milk provides this nutrient without the animal fat. A child who spends as little as 10 to 15 minutes three times a week playing in the sunshine, with arms and face exposed, will get sufficient vitamin D because it is synthesized in the skin when the skin is exposed to sunlight.(23)
- Vitamin B12: Whereas other primates get their necessary vitamin B12 from dirt, unchlorinated water, feces, and insects, commercially available multivitamins will ensure an adequate amount of the vitamin for your child.(24) Vitamin B12 is also found in fortified soy milk and many cereals.
What You Can Do
A healthy vegan diet is easy to plan and maintain. Products fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 are available in most grocery stores. Mock meats are especially delicious and are also readily available in most grocery stores and many restaurants.
- The Compassionate Cook by PETA and Ingrid E. Newkirk (Warner, 1993)
- Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock and Steven J. Parker (Pocket Books, 2004)
- Pregnancy, Children, and the Vegan Diet by Michael Klaper, M.D. (Gentle World, Inc., 1994)
- Raising Vegetarian Children: A Guide to Good Health and Family Harmony by Joanne Stepaniak and Vesanto Melina (McGraw-Hill, 2003)
- New Vegetarian Bab by Sharon Yntema and Christine Beard (McBooks Press, 1999)
- Vegetarian Children: A Supportive Guide for Parents by Sharon Yntema (McBooks Press, 1995)
- The Vegetarian Mother and Baby Book by Rose Elliot (Pantheon Books, 1996)
Related Web Sites
- http://www.llli.org (La Leche League, 1-800-LA-LECHE)
- http://www.pcrm.org (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 202-686-2210)
- http://www.vegetariantimes.com (Vegetarian Times magazine, 1-877-717-8923)
- http://www.vrg.org/journal (Vegetarian Journal, 410-366-8343)
1) “Cholesterol and Atherosclerosis in Children, AHA Scientific Position,” American Heart Association, 2009.
2) T.A. Badger, “Infants, Toddlers Developing Bad Eating Habits, Study Finds,” Associated Press, 26 Oct. 2003.
3) Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, “Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity: How Do We Measure Up?” Sep. 2006.
4) National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Diabetes Projects,” Diabetes Public Health Resource, 30 Sept 2008.
5) Benjamn Spock and Steven J. Parker, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care (New York: Pocket Books, 1998) 333.
6) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Foodborne Illness,” 10 Jan. 2005.
7) “How Safe Is That Chicken? Most Tested Broilers Were Contaminated,” Consumer Reports, Jan 2010.
8) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, “Salmonella enteritidis,” 13 Oct. 2005.
9) Julie Vorman, “Raw Ground Beef Often Tainted With E. Coli,” Reuters, 1 Mar. 2000.
10) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “ToxFAQs for Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs),” 16 Sep. 2003.
11) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
12) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Environmental Protection Agency, “What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish,” Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Mar. 2004.
13) “Dr. Spock Joins Milk’s Detractors; Nutritional Value, Safety Are Questioned,” The Washington Post, 30 Sep. 1992.
14) Spock and Parker 331.
15) American Gastroenterological Association, “American Gastroenterological Association Medical Position Statement: Guidelines for the Evaluation of Food Allergies,” Gastroenterology 120 (2001): 1023-5.
16) Courtney Taylor, “Got Milk Intolerance?” The Clarion-Ledger, 1 Aug. 2003.
17) National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, “Lactose Intolerance,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Jun. 2009.
18) Spock and Parker 113.
19) Spock and Parker 332.
20) American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada: Vegetarian Diets,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Jun. 2003.
21) University of Michigan Health System, “Cow’s Milk: Pros and Cons,” C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 2008.
22) U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, “Medical Encyclopedia: Vitamin C,” MedlinePlus Health Information, 7 Mar. 2009.
23) U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, “Medical Encyclopedia: Vitamin D,” MedlinePlus Health Information, 7 Mar. 2009.
24) Stephen Walsh, Ph.D., “B12: An Essential Part of a Healthy Plant-Based Diet,” Food for All Our Futures, 35th World Vegetarian Congress, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland, 8-14 Jul. 2002.