"There's no way I could raise my daughter to eat meat," says Jenny Henry, 40, of Toronto. Her daughter, Isabelle, was five years old when Henry decided that she would start eating a vegan diet. The switch happened three years ago, after Henry herself discovered "the truth" about the farming industry.
"I had no idea how animals were treated," Henry says. "The effects they have on the environment and your health… the planet is being destroyed by animal culture." While this is the general consensus of many a staunch vegan, it doesn't necessarily justify enforcing the lifestyle on his or her mini-me.
Every parent has strong opinions about what their kid should be eating, but Henry's choice to raise her daughter on a vegan diet—while perhaps historically unconventional in western society—is becoming increasingly more common.
The Internet is riddled with YouTube videos in which parents detail the vegan meals they feed their kids, some who are as young as one or two years old. It's unclear how many children are vegans today, but a poll conducted in 2000 by The Vegetarian Resource Group estimated that approximately 0.5 percent of six- to 17-year-olds in the US were strictly vegan at that time.
That number has likely gone up in recent years. The UK saw a 350 percent increase in veganism between 2006 and 2016, of which 42 percent of all vegans were aged between 15 and 34. And with the rise in vegan children there have also been more horror stories about malnourished kids with diseases like rickets—which was essentially eradicated by the 1940s.
For example, in 2008 the Daily Mail reported a story of one parent who decided to feed her kids a strictly raw vegan diet. The diet left the children with severe protein and vitamin D deficiencies that will continue to give them problems into their adult lives.
And last year there was a high-profile case in Italy where a 14-month-old baby showed up in the hospital with such severe malnourishment from a vegan diet that he had to have an emergency operation on his heart. Custody was taken away from his parents after the that incident and now Italy is now considering a law that could mean possible jail time for parents who impose vegan diets on their children.
On the other end of the spectrum is Johanna Skippon, 42, a mother of three also from Toronto who says, "I struggle as it is to create meals that are healthy, interesting and that they will eat. I can't imagine being vegan on top of that."
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"The problem with vegan diets and children is you can't just wing it," says Toronto-based registered dietician Abby Langer, who runs her own practice. "It can be done safely and it can be healthy, but a vegan diet isn't just giving the kid vegetables."
There are a host of things that a parent needs to consider before changing their kid's diet. Langer goes through a grocery list of nutrients that need to be supplemented in vegan diets, including protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, essential fatty acids, calcium, zinc, and iron.
"You could see problems with the child's growth, bone and muscle development, dental health, hair, skin, nails, if they have deficiencies," Langer says.
And all of this doesn't even take into account if the kid is a picky eater—Henry's lucky that her daughter isn't. Isabelle "loves vegan food" and gets her nutrients from a variety of sources such as nutritional yeast, chia seeds, beans, chickpeas, etc.
But for parents such as Skippon, who has a kid who ate brown pasta and cucumber almost exclusively for a year, it's a struggle to make sure the children are getting the necessary balanced diet. "I would try to supplement with vitamins," Skippon says, but when she did try giving her picky eater doctor-approved vitamins, she refused those too.
On top of that, Langer warns that kids need more calories per pound than adults because they're growing. It's harder to get the required energy intake with a vegan diet and a shortage of calories means the child won't grow and develop properly, she says. Studies have shown that vegan children grow up to be shorter and weigh less than their omnivorous peers.
Also it's not just nutritional problems parents need to be concerned with. Restrictive diets can be difficult on a child, psychologically. Evidence suggests that restricting foods generally makes them more desirable. As anyone who's ever been on a diet knows, if you can't have the office donuts all you can think about is donuts.
"Children will then often eat more of foods that are restricted at places like parties where they have free access to them," says Emma Haycraft, psychology professor at Loughborough University. In Isabelle's case, Henry says that before going vegan she used to eat cheese all the time.
She suspects Isabelle probably still eats cheese at her dad's house (Henry and her husband are separated) but isn't sure. But what happens when parents are more anal retentive than Henry, insistent on a child sticking to a strict diet?
"Overtly restricting food so the child is aware or forcing children to eat more than they wish can impair children's autonomy around eating, which has been linked to eating problems later in life," Haycraft says.
There is also some evidence that meatless diets are linked to an increase in mental health problems. A 2012 German observational study of more than 4,000 people found that vegetarians were 15 percent more likely to have depression and twice as likely to report anxiety. The study also showed a link between vegetarianism and eating disorders.
That being said, some kids really do choose to be vegan at a young age and grow up with the exact same ups and downs as their omnivore peers. Carlee Hallarn, 29, has been a vegan since she was four years old.
"I figured out that the cute little chickens at the farm and the chicken fingers on my plate were actually the same thing. I stopped eating animals from that point on," she says.
Her parents even tried to stop her from making "a really weird decision" but gave in and eventually became vegans themselves. "It was definitely harder being a person who doesn't eat animals as a kid, especially going to birthday parties and pizza days at school," Hallarn says.
But even Hallarn plans to take a more moderate approach with her daughter. "I'll let her make her own decisions about her diet," she says, "as soon as she is old enough to understand the choices."
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