Modern children are an entirely different breed of human. They use iPhones better than most adults before their fifth birthday, don't remember the archaic time when one could openly smoke in restaurants, and will listen to songs like "Wiggle" twenty years from now and become filled with nostalgia for childhood. Hipster baby names have gotten out of control, but now there's a revolution of young children who are full-on, hardcore vegans and vegetarians. My six-year-old brother, William, is one of them.
Vegetarian since birth (due to my parent's vegetarianism) William's diet is something that I have silently, and sometimes not so silently, had problems with my whole life. He's six and, even though I have spent zero time studying nutrition, I've always thought he couldn't possibly be getting the nutrients he needs to grow properly—like many of us carnivores do—without meat. But William is a happy, healthy little kid who's indecipherable from the rest his age, minus his affinity for tofu hot dogs and his ability to draw out the I'm trying not to look shocked face from waiters when we're out for dinner and he says "I'm vegetarian" to the suggestion of pepperoni pizza.
One of the best parts about a vegetarian child is their reason for going meatless, which tends to either be adorably decided or a strange regurgitation of their parent's rationale. "I just don't like it, I don't want to kill the creatures," says William, sounding like my step-dad, "It's weird because they kill animals just to eat the meat, not to use the bones or anything. If you're going to hurt the animal you shouldn't waste the bones." Apparently "bone wasting" is a big concern for vegetarian children.
If you ask my parents why they chose to raise my brother vegetarian, their answers are a bit more in depth, "to be vegetarian is to be compassionate and have a respect for and love for all life, and then there are the obvious health benefits as well. Beans and rice provide amino acids, and dairy and plant proteins can substitute meat proteins and plant based iron coupled with citrus high in vitamin C allows for better absorption providing adequate iron levels," says my mother. And even though those are things I've been hearing my whole life and rolled my eyes to often, I can't deny that what they are saying is well informed considering my step dad's degree in nutritional science and lifelong work in the health food industry. That coupled with my mother's obsession with researching ways to stay healthy while being vegetarian is part of the reason why I can respect my parents' decision to raise William to be vegetarian, even if it's something that I wouldn't do myself. "If he really wanted to eat meat, of course we would let him, he just doesn't want to," my mother insists. Sure, I think to myself, not yet, he doesn't.
But it's not just me. While there are an estimated 1.4 million vegetarian kids in the US and the culture of vegetarianism is more common than it was 50 years ago, the idea of a child or infant being vegetarian or vegan is still one that concerns many people when it comes to growth and health. Consider the tragic story of Sarah Anne Markam, the vegan mother who was arrested this week for not taking her infant to the hospital after being advised by a pediatrician that the infant's vegan diet was putting the child's like at risk.
As terribly sad as that is, what people might not realize is that for every vegan and vegetarian child who has suffered injury or death due to the diet their parents have chosen for them, there is another child who has suffered the same or equally terrible fate who wasn't vegetarian or vegan. Children who are fed dairy and meat also die or suffer from diet induced medical disorders every year, from obesity to developing diabetes to suffering from vitamin deficiencies that effect their growth and internal organs. Some people are just fucking idiots or evil bastards that should not have children.
"A vegetarian child's diet can be absolutely healthy, but you have to know what you're doing," says dietician Nina Hirvi about vegetarian children. "Of course there are risks if you are limiting certain foods, but the ones you want to watch out for are calcium, iron, and protein." The average toddler only needs about 16 grams of protein a day—much of which can come from dairy, beans, and legumes. Many fruits and vegetables are iron-rich, and calcium can be obtained from milk. The only children that are at any real risk are picky eaters who also happen to be vegetarian.
"If you're a picky kid who doesn't like beans or tofu or nuts, you're probably going to end up eating too many carbohydrates. We know that a vegetarian diet is healthier. But if you end up eating too much white refined carbohydrates and starch to substitute for lean chicken breast and beans, it's not a healthy diet and can lead to the child becoming overweight," explains Hirvi. If you're going to have a vegetarian child, you may have to become more vigilant at cracking the whip, "If you're vegan, you're going to need to take a supplement of B12, because it is only found in animal foods and is also a good source of iron," suggests Hirvi.
When the vast majority of problems that come about from a kid being vegetarian or vegan are results of not properly educating yourself on what exactly your vegetarian kid needs in order to survive, making them eat things they don't want to, or not giving them a B12 vitamin, I think it's time to stop blaming the diet itself and point the finger at inadequate parents. If you are making the decision to feed your child a vegetarian or vegan diet you damn well better at least read a book about it, or talk to a nutritionist, but get your shit together and make sure that kid is getting all of the nutrients that they need in order to be healthy.