My children have been vegan from conception. I get a lot of questions from people who’d like to follow this path but for one reason or another have been scared into questioning whether it’s healthy. I get it. As parents, we want the best for our children and wouldn’t want to do anything to compromise their health and well-being.
After reading everything I could find on the topic, I confidently concluded that not only is veganism healthy for kids, but a plant-based diet of whole foods is likely healthier than the diet I (and many others) grew up on.
The fear people have seems largely to trace to misinformed or misleading articles. “Did you hear about that vegan couple that killed their baby?!” I did, actually. Every single time a new article comes out condemning the diets of the parents for the death of a child I read it, because I want to know if there’s anything I should be concerned about. And every single time, once you get past the dramatic, click-baity headline, it turns out that the problem wasn’t veganism at all, but neglect, mental health issues, or malnourishment through failing to follow well-established medical guidelines—typically that infants up to the age of one receive either human breastmilk or a commercial soy or cow’s milk formula.
If someone were feeding their infant a diet of Cheetos while the helpless baby withered away, the headline wouldn’t read “Non-Vegan Couple Killed Their Baby!” because we’d rightly recognize that the problem wasn’t the diet of the parents, but a completely inappropriate approach to feeding and caring for their child that not only doesn’t represent the norm, but doesn’t even seem to be grounded in reality. (Meanwhile, we don’t even culturally recognize it as problematic to feed children hot dogs and bacon, despite knowing unequivocally that these and other processed meats cause cancer. Aren't humans funny, sometimes?)
Unfortunately, though, people like to read good news about their bad habits, and the media is in the business of providing us with entertainment in the form of news. “Veganism is bad for babies!” translates to, “I don’t have to grapple with the ethics of my diet… phew! Those vegans think they’re so great, when all along, I’ve been the responsible one! HA!”
Here’s the thing. I grew big, healthy babies during two healthy plant-based pregnancies. My babies were 8 and 10 pounds at birth, respectively, delivered right on time with no medical interventions. I’m small and slender, but after delivering my juicy 10 pound second-born without tearing, I walked out of the hospital myself less than two hours later. The entire hospital staff gawked as we cheerfully said, “good night!”
My kids are thriving on a plant-based diet, too. They’re strong, energetic, smart, happy, and healthy. By the age of 19 months, my eldest was not just identifying but articulating complex shapes like triangular prism and parallelogram. He started reading and doing simple math at age 2. Now at age 4, he can locate all the countries of the world on a map, name the capitals of most countries and all of the US states, and identify when shapes resemble countries or territories (“hey mommy, look, that rock looks like Andhra Pradesh!” That’s a state in India, in case you didn’t know—I didn’t.)
My youngest is turning out to have similar excellent cognitive health. Before his second birthday he was articulating complex sentences with a huge vocabulary and accurately using pronouns. He’s also in the upper 90s percentiles for height and weight, meaning he’s huge. All of this is to say my children are thriving, physically and mentally, on a plant-based diet.
Perhaps most poignantly of all, they’re thriving emotionally when it comes to three of the topics that figure prominently into the lives of small children: animals, food, and how we behave towards others. My children love animals in the purest sense of the word—we’re not asking their innocent minds to reconcile loving animals on the one hand while eating their bodies on the other. They're learning to apply kindness in every facet of their lives, including in how we consume, and in how we treat all animals. They understand that we practice the golden rule by treating others as we’d want to be treated—including animals. They know that meat is an animal’s body and that cow’s milk is intended for baby cows just like my milk is intended for them—which, frankly, is more than some adults I know have consciously comprehended. They will never experience the trauma that I did when I realized that I had been unknowingly and unnecessarily contributing to animal suffering by consuming animal foods, following a childhood of absorbing irresponsibility false cultural narratives about how we farm animals.
My children eat a diverse, delicious, healthy diet. Sometimes they eat the vegan versions of the animal foods many of us are familiar with—vegan chicken nuggets, vegan grilled cheese, vegan mac and cheese, vegan ice cream. Mostly, they eat whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, just like their parents. They don’t feel deprived because they aren’t.
The only thing that seems to be hard for them about being vegan is that they don’t understand why anyone would choose to eat animal foods when, as they see it, it’s so easy and delicious to eat plants instead. My children come grocery shopping with us and see the wide variety of plant-based foods we can choose from. They know that there are vegan versions available of everything. And it’s incomprehensible to them that anyone would deliberately make the non-vegan choice. To them it seems mean. They’re too young to understand the pull of culture, psychological defence mechanisms, and attachment to tradition—and my heart breaks for them. This is their first lesson that not everything in the world is Good.
Now, onto some questions I'm commonly asked. If after reading this you still have questions, feel free to get in touch. I love helping people move towards a compassionate plant-based diet.
My spouse/parent/health care provider isn’t sure whether veganism is healthy for kids. What should I tell them?
It sounds like there are many people who'd like to raise their kids vegan but are getting push back from family members and even (disturbingly) health care professionals who apparently believe the amino acids found in muscle tissue and the calcium found in cow's milk are somehow magical and irreplaceable.
First of all, medical doctors are trained in medical topics like pathology and pharmacology. They have very little to no training in nutrition, which you can verify in peer-reviewed journal articles and respected media publications. The accredited, regulated professionals who are experts in nutrition are dietitians. They have science degrees in dietetics, which is the study of human nutrition and diet, and thousands of hours of training and practice in nutritional wellness and nutritional deficiencies.
Here's what Dietitians of Canada has to say about a vegan diet:
In fact, they point out that a vegan diet "has many health benefits including lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer."
This is the official position of the experts following their review of all available evidence and it carries more weight than a nutrition blogger or a family-practice physician, to the extent that their advice differs. Unfortunately, I have heard too many stories of doctors, nurses, and nutritionists giving parents false information and advice that would be funny if it weren't so concerning. I personally have been advised by a family physician that veganism is fine for kids as long as we’re practicing protein combining (a nutrition hypothesis that was debunked decades ago).
If you have remaining nutrition questions, please consult with a registered dietitian. I also like Jack Norris' and Ginny Messina's websites for accurate, science-based information that I know I can trust.
What do your kids eat?
I post my family’s food on Instagram so you can see exactly what kinds of foods we eat, and follow along in my Insta-stories where I often prepare meals and share meal and snack ideas that work for us.
In the morning, they’ll typically have blueberry oatmeal with hemp seeds or sprouted whole grain toast with nut butter or Earth Balance with nutritional yeast. We also make a family smoothie with bananas, apple, flax seeds, walnuts, kale/collards, ginger root, turmeric root, and frozen mixed berries.
Lunch is often leftovers from the evening before or something simple to prepare, such as hummus on toast with raw veggies like cucumber and carrots. Dinner might be pasta, tacos, quinoa bowls, stir fry, fried rice, curry, or chili.
I’m weaning my baby off of breastmilk or formula, what should I transition them to?
First of all, the World Health Organization and Health Canada recommend breastfeeding until age two and beyond. Unless there’s some reason you can’t, this is the best choice. If you need support, La Leche League is a wealth of resources.
Experts recommend fortified soy milk (widely available) as the best choice among plant-based milks for young children because of its superior protein and fat content. We use unsweetened soy milk. Personally, I’d consider using commercial soy formula at least sometimes until the age of two if breastmilk isn’t an option.
You can also get away from the white liquid paradigm—unless you want something for cereal or a bottle, think outside the box. In addition to breastfeeding regularly beyond the age of two, my children quench their thirst with filtered water (we filter out the chlorine to ensure their gut bacteria flourish). They also drink nutritious green smoothies almost daily.
We don’t drink cow’s milk because of our ethical concerns with impregnating cows and removing their babies so the milk can be diverted to humans. However, since learning more about health impacts of dairy, I’ve also become concerned about the insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in milk, a naturally occurring hormone in cow’s milk that has been linked to cancer. Moreover, because modern-day cows are kept almost constantly pregnant, their milk contains high amounts of estrogen, which may be linked to cancer and early puberty. I wouldn’t want to feed my children cow’s milk out of health concerns alone—I mean, it’s the mammalian breastmilk of another species, intended to turn a baby into a thousand pound adult!
You might also be interested to know that human milk has a significantly different composition than cow’s milk. Human milk contains more calories, fat and carbohydrate than cow’s milk, but significantly less protein and calcium (human milk contains 2.5 grams of protein and 79 mg of calcium per cup, while cow milk contains 7.9 grams of protein and 276 grams of calcium per cup). I’m not sure if any conclusions can be derived from this, but it is interesting to reflect on the fact that a mother’s milk is nature’s perfect food for her babies, and considering the composition of human milk (and how much it differs from cow’s milk) I wonder how far off course we’ve veered using cows as surrogate milk-makers.
As always, be sure to consult with a dietitian or to review information provided by a dietitian (or someone else demonstrably qualified to be giving nutrition advice). I am simply summarizing what I learned and what I did/do, but this may not be complete information for your family's needs, and I'm not a health professional.
Where does your family get protein, calcium and iron?
Three foods we love and eat a lot of are tofu, hummus, and peanut butter.
Tofu is a good source of protein, high in all essential amino acids (it’s a “complete protein”). It’s also a good source of iron and calcium. See below for more information about the healthfulness of soy.
Hummus, which we make at home from chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice, is an excellent addition to your family’s diet if you’re not already eating it. It’s a good source of protein. Tahini, which is ground sesame seeds, is rich in calcium, as are chickpeas. The iron from the legumes is made five times more absorbable from the vitamin C in the lemon juice. It’s also delicious—palatable to kids and adults alike. If I could only bring one food to a dessert island, it just might be hummus.
In addition to being delicious on its own spread onto whole grain toast, peanut butter makes a great base for sauces for noodles or bowls. Did you know that peanuts are actually legumes? In addition to being a good source of protein and iron, peanut butter is inexpensive and widely available. Peanuts are a mainstay of many ethnic culinary traditions, including Latin American, Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian and African cuisines. Peanuts also contain zinc and unsaturated fats, both important for growing kiddos. I’m smuggling peanut butter to my desert island too!
Other favourite ways to get protein: lentil soup, beans and/or quinoa sprinkled with olive oil and nutritional yeast, almonds, soymilk, and occasionally veggie meats like veggie dogs. I'd also like to point out that I think our cultural obsession with protein is misguided. We tend to get far more protein than we need while neglecting other important elements of a healthy diet, like fibre and micronutrients. I love Garth Davis's breakdown on how obsessing over protein distracts us from other nutrition considerations. Ray Cronise also has a brilliant perspective on rethinking our approach to eating (hint: he doesn't think protein is more special or important than carbohydrates and fats, and if he had it his way, he'd banish the word "protein" from the nutrition lexicon).
Other favourite ways to get calcium: green smoothies made with kale and/or collards (honestly, you can’t even taste it!), oranges, fortified soymilk, almonds, broccoli, bok choy, spinach, sweet potatoes, navy beans (as part of baked beans or white bean piccata), black or pinto beans (puréed on tacos is a fave).
Other favourite ways to get iron: green smoothies, dried fruit (dates, raisins, apricots), lentil soup with a source of vitamin C (typically tomatoes), dark chocolate, blackstrap molasses whisked into heated soymilk, oatmeal, fortified cereals.
You can (and should!) find more info about ensuring you’re feeding your family a healthy diet here, here, here, and here. And before you dismiss veganism as too much work, consider that ALL of us—vegan or not—ought to be paying attention to the composition of our diets to ensure we’re eating as healthfully as possible. We have access to both health information and food choices, and it’s worthwhile to invest some time learning some nutrition basics to maximize our health, to say nothing of ensuring we're being responsible members of society and ensuring our children are doing the same.
I heard soy can give you man boobs, make you infertile, steal all your money, graffiti your house, and give you paper cuts. Do you eat soy? CAN SOY BE TRUSTED?
When I got my hands on the first-ever vegan cookbook, published in the 1970s from a vegan commune, I finally started to understand the borderline ridiculous western paranoia with soy. The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook spends half of the book's introduction talking about the excellent nutrition profile and versatility of soy foods, and includes several pages on how to transition children onto a soy-rich diet. (This vegan community, by the way, has been studied by researchers and found to have healthier-than-average pregnancies and infants.)
It's a BEAN, people, not a radioactive isotope! And it's been a staple in the diets of millions of people around the world for millennia. Soy is nutritious: it’s a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s versatile: it can be eaten whole, immature (as edamame), fermented (into miso, tempeh or natto), brewed (into soy sauce), soaked (into soymilk), curdled the same way cheese is (into tofu), defatted into a meat analogue (textured vegetable protein), and more.
If I were the meat industry, I'd consider soy an existential threat. And lo and behold, the soy paranoia can largely be traced back to one source: the Weston A. Price Foundation, which advocates a diet rich in meat and dairy, and which receives funding from—surprise, surprise—meat and dairy farmers.
Some people are concerned that soy contains phytoestrogens—an unfortunate name that describes health-promoting non-steroidal plant compounds that protect against many cancers, cardiovascular disease, brain function disorders, and osteoporosis. Soy foods aren't even the largest source of phytoestrogens in our diet—that honour actually goes to flax seeds. In fact, phytoestrogens can be found in a whole variety of plant-based foods from rice to coffee to beer. Meanwhile, we are consuming actual estrogen through mammalian milk—cow’s milk (and cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products)—which is a growing public health concern.
As always, I rely on the Dietitians of Canada as a resource for evidence-based, impartial information. They say soy is a good source of protein, healthy fats (including omega-3 fatty acids), calcium, iron, and antioxidants. They also point out that soy has been thoroughly researched and has been shown only to have health benefits.
In sum, not only are soy foods not the devil, but they are incredibly nutritious, versatile, and delicious, and I try to include them in my family's diet every day. You don't need to eat them, but unless you have any specific reason to avoid them, you might want to consider including them, too.
I’d love to transition my kids but they’re picky! What do I do?!
You’ll have to take what I say with a grain of salt because my kids aren’t especially picky eaters, so I might be tone deaf on this subject. But know this: I started learning about raising healthy eaters before my first child was born, and have been applying these principles since they were in utero, so it’s also possible that I’m not dealing with picky eaters because this approach works.
Here’s what worked for me:
- children are first exposed to the family’s food flavours in utero and then through breastmilk. I ate Ethiopian, Chinese, Indian, Jamaican, Mexican, and Japanese foods while pregnant and breastfeeding, along with plenty of the standard plant-based cuisine (bowls, of course!) My kids have been exposed to all of these flavours and have a taste for them.
- model healthy eating behaviours. Kids are master imitators. Don’t eat unhealthy foods and expect your kids to eat healthfully. If they see you eating vegetables, legumes and whole grains, they’ll see it as normal and be more open to eating that way, too.
- put healthy food in front of your kids. Don’t ask them what they want to eat, because the answer probably won’t be “a plate of veggies.” Instead, serve them a colourful variety of plant-based foods when they’re hungry. They’ll eat it if it's the only thing available.
- we are responsible for providing a variety of healthy foods. The kids are responsible for deciding whether and how much they’ll eat. Resist the temptation to bribe, force, or cajole them into eating something or to eating more of something. Healthy eating habits includes learning to respond to hunger cues. Sometimes kids go through phases where they seem to exist on air alone; as long as they’re otherwise healthy, don’t panic.
- include your children in grocery shopping and meal preparation (and growing food, if possible). Talk to them about the foods you're purchasing ("this lettuce looks crisp and the bottom is nice and white!") and preparing ("let's add some cilantro to these black beans—it will add a fresh, citrusy flavour"). Allow them to participate in a safe and age-appropriate way. Resist the urge to speed them up or prevent them from being messy... I am definitely talking to myself, here :).
I believe it’s our job as parents to teach our kids healthy eating habits. Of course they’d like the salty, fatty food engineered to taste great—but that doesn’t mean we should acquiesce. On the contrary, knowing that our food environment is dominated by unhealthful foods means we need to be even more vigilant in navigating that food environment on behalf of our vulnerable kids. They need us to help them learn how to recognize and enjoy healthy foods and to teach them that unhealthy foods are treats to enjoy in moderation, if at all.
I found two books especially helpful on this topic. In French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too), author Karen Le Billon details how her family moved from Canada to France and completely changed how they think about and approach eating, cooking, snacking, and food preparation. In France, children are expected to be—and are—adventurous eaters who enjoy vegetables and participate fully in family meals. Schools and culture reinforce families' efforts to ensure children are taught to love and appreciate food. By the end of their stay, Le Billon's own children were cured of their extreme pickiness, thanks to the family applying the principles they'd learned in France. The book is definitely not vegan, but in spite of that, I found the information so fascinating and helpful.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman's Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right is another book not to miss. Most of the book is an overview of research on how a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet is key to best protecting children from infections, illnesses, and allergies; helping children develop cognitively; and minimizing children's risk of developing cancers, autoimmune diseases and other lifestyle illnesses later in life. Later in the book he also provides useful tips for transitioning picky kids from junk food diets to plant-based diets, and provides clinical examples of success stories. He is also a father himself, so he speaks of what he knows. Dr. Fuhrman's firm, encouraging message on the non-negotiability of instilling healthy eating habits in our children has stayed with me.
What supplements did you take while pregnant/breastfeeding? What supplements do your kids take?
I took Rainbow Light's Prenatal One while pregnant and breastfeeding, along with an algae-based DHA/EPA (those are the long chain omega 3 fatty acids) for insurance on top of my daily dose of flax seeds. Pregnant women—vegan or not—are typically advised to take a prenatal vitamin and omega 3 supplement, so this is consistent with medical guidelines. I just got my omega 3s from the same place fish get them: algae.
Now that my kids are nursing less and so not obtaining as much DHA/EPA from my milk, I've also started to give them a plant-based source of these long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, again as insurance. We also consume omega 3 from flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, expeller-pressed canola oil, and soy foods.
Vitamin D is essential to supplement for many of us, certainly those of us living in Canada year-round. Vitamin D is produced in our bodies when a component of the oil in our skin (7-dehydrocholesterol) reacts with UVB (but not UVA) rays from the sun. Once upon a time, our equatorial ancestors had no trouble producing vitamin D from sun exposure. Our more northern ancestors probably would have obtained vitamin D from large quantities of fatty fish, which is impractical and undesirable in modern times. Today, when many of us live in northern regions and spend much of our time indoors and clothed, we simply have to supplement.
Our family takes vitamin D in the winter, when there aren't sufficient UVB rays from the sun hitting Vancouver. In the summer, we don't add a supplement, but we do make sure to get mid-day sun exposure, and we take it easy on soaps too (for many reasons—one being so as not to wash away the oil needed for vitamin D synthesis).
The dairy industry likes to talk about milk as a source of vitamin D, but vitamin D isn't naturally occurring in cow's milk. It's only in there because they add it in. So why swallow a baby calf's hormonal growth fluid when you could just go right to the source, and take your own supplements?
Vitamin B12 is the other supplement we add. It's essential. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria and once upon a time, when we lived more closely to the natural world, we would have consumed plenty of this vitamin through soil and even traces of feces. In our modern, sanitized food environment, up to 15 percent of us are deficient in vitamin B12; according to the Institute of Medicine, vitamin B12 must be supplemented not only for vegans, but also for individuals over the age of 50, with pernicious anemia, or with gastrointestinal disorders.
Vitamin B12 and long-chain omega 3s are transmitted through breastmilk. Vitamin D essentially isn't. All breastfed babies in northern locations should be supplemented with vitamin D (unless mom is mega-dosing).
Now that they're older, my children take a chewable multivitamin (which does contain vitamins D and B12) so I don't have to stress about any potential nutritional gaps. Even if they weren't vegan I'd give them a multi because that's just how I roll.
Now, it's your turn. I'd love to know: have you had a healthy vegan pregnancy or do you have thriving vegan children? How do you talk to your children about eating animals and being vegan? What do you love about animal rights parenting and what do you find challenging? Let's support each other. xoxo