Are Vegan Diets Safe for Kids?
A recent New York Times piece highlights the growing popularity of families raising their children on raw or vegan diets. On the surface, this may not seem like much to write home about; after all, this is 2014: What's a little veganism compared to the paleo diet, gluten-free craze, low-sugar trend, or the ever-popular low-fat or low-carb diets? Still, the piece raises a loaded question: Should you raise your kids on a a completely vegan or raw diet?
Twenty years ago, the answer might have been no. Today the answer isn't so simple. Emily Kane, an Alaska-based naturopathic doctor, writes in Better Nutrition magazine that today's children "bear a higher chemical burden than they would have 100 years ago," so toxicity symptoms-such as headaches, constipation, rashes, bleeding gums, B.O., and difficulty breathing or concentrating-are increasing in children. One couple cited in the Times says that before they had children, they both suffered severe addictions to "junk food, candy, pastry, and fried fatty foods," so they put their child on a raw diet to save him from the same fate.
Activist, author, and yoga expert Rainbeau Mars agrees, which is why she's encouraging entire families to adopt a vegan lifestyle to help youngsters find healthy alternatives to their favorite "addictions."
"It's really important that kids are eating enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, but what happens often with mainstream philosophies is that we think kids benefit from eating white bread and nitrate-filled animal products," she says. "We forget kids actually will like vegetables, especially if they get involved in the cooking process." Mars says her diet is a "zero-calorie restriction" plan (click here for a sample menu) that focuses on high-fiber, plant-based foods, with an emphasis on encouraging kids to eat from "each color of the rainbow" to ensure they meet all their nutritional needs.
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All of which sounds good in theory. But childrens' dietary needs differ from adults, and too often kids become "non-vegetable eating vegans," says Caroline Cederquist, M.D., medical director at bistroMD. A vegan diet filled with grains, white bread, and fruit is just as unhealthy as the Standard American Diet, and some experts say that many of the children they see on these diets are anemic and underweight.
Plus, there are the social implications to consider. Even families who have eaten raw or vegan for years find they have trouble navigating social situations outside of the house. California resident Jinjee Talifero-who runs a raw food company-told the Times that though she had been raw for 20 years and hoped to raise her kids the same way, she ran up against too many problems of them being "socially isolated, ostracized, and just plain left out."
Strict diets are, well, really strict, but putting your kid on a vegan or raw diet can be done in a healthful manner, as long as you have the right attitude, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., author of The Flexitarian Diet. For example, taking a few simple steps to make sure your tot still feels connected to his social network-such as asking if you can bring vegan cupcakes to a birthday party so he's not left out of the fun-and framing the conversation about food around the fun and healthy ways you can prep the foods you can eat, rather than focusing on the "bad" foods you can't eat, can all go a long way in helping your kids develop a healthy relationship with food. "And when they get older, there needs to be an openness and respect if your kids don't want to eat this way outside of the house," Jackson Blatner says. "That has to be part of the dialogue."
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Cederquist recommends letting your kids be as involved with food preparation as possible. "As parents, we buy the food and prepare the food," she says. "We all share or impart our values and issues with food with our children. If food is nourishment and life promoting and health promoting, we will impart the right things."
For her part, Mars insists her diet program is necessary. "I wish that one-third of our population wasn't obese," she says. "I wish we did not have young adults on antidepressants or Ritalin, and the need for cures for major teenage acne, allergies, ADD, diabetes, and other food-related sicknesses. I'd encourage people to examine the root of when mass ‘disease' started and how we can go back to the origins of getting our food from the earth, rather than preservative- and chemical-laden factories."
If the old adage "You are what you eat" is true, Mars says as long as we continue to focus on food that's "toasted, dead, beer-based, and abused," that's how we're going to feel (sounds nice, right?). "But if we eat foods that are fresh, alive, colorful, and beautiful, perhaps we'll feel the same," she adds.