This is my final year print project at City, University of London. I also entirely designed this article to fit The Guardian Family section, which was my target publication. You can see the design by clicking here (scroll down to page 2).
Thirteen years ago a six-week-old baby died from severe malnutrition in Atlanta because his parents gave him a diet based only on soy milk and apple juice. The couple were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of their child. In 2016 an Italian baby was found in a similar situation, with low calcium levels and a heart condition, but his life was saved in hospital.
These two events only relate to parents who raised their kids on a so-called “strict vegan diet”. These stories were widely dealt with in the media and contributed to the general idea that veganism is not safe for adults and could have severe consequences for children. But is there actually any challenge in raising a child as a vegan? Did these events make people think twice before giving their children a vegan diet?
Recent statistics shared by the Vegan Society and Vegan Life Magazine showed that the number of vegans in the UK has risen by 350 per cent in a decade: now there are 542,000 people who are against cruelty to animals, environment-friendly or simply care about having a healthier lifestyle. Happy that more and more people are joining the movement, vegan spokespeople try to prove that veganism is perfectly healthy for both adults and children, and that the two cases above were just cases of malnutrition and lack of care.
Yet anti-vegan activists and some health professionals think that the vegan diet is not advisable for kids and it can in some cases create serious issues. It is sometimes said that feeding a child a vegan diet can be dangerous as he/she can lack vitamins and nutrients which can be found in meat and cow’s milk. Heather Russell, a dietitian working for the Vegan Society, says that some vitamins are even more needed for vegans: “Vitamin B12 is really important to consider. Every vegan should have a reliable source of vitamin B12 in their diet whether through fortified food or supplement or a combination of both.” She says an iodine supplement is also necessary as it is usually found in dairy and fish, which vegans do not have access to. A common argument shared by anti-vegans is that if vegans have to supplement their nutritional needs, then veganism might not be good for humans in general. A study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health in 2014 also suggests that adults following a vegan diet already get 20 per cent less calories than those who eat meat, and argue that this can be a problem when a child is growing.
For Ondrej Matej, a nutritionist working in North London, soy milk, which is one of the best known milk types for vegans, should be avoided under the age of six as it can cause hormonal problems. It contains a high amount of oestrogen which can “mess up the hormonal bonds of the child”.
The ATTN article also quotes a study which warns that children raised on a vegetarian or vegan diet tend to be slightly smaller – while for a majority still being in the average – than other kids, especially because they do not get the same amounts of calcium, vitamins and energy. If there is no big worries about the growth of vegan kids so far, excesses can still alter a child’s development.
Matej says that being a vegan child is different from being a vegan adult. “When you decide to go vegan as an adult, it’s purely your own choice, so you don’t really go through the same thing.” Where adults can create a brand new diet for themselves without a lot of problems as they are grown-ups, children have different nutritional needs especially because their body and brain are still developing. For girls, the hardest times are also during puberty as their iron levels decrease as a result of menstruation.
But raising a child as a vegan can also have impact on a social scale. “If you grow up as a vegan child, you will not experience things that other kids do,” says Matej. “And that will be a big problem when you reach school because you’ll be faced with food that you haven’t faced before, and you might just go completely crazy on things you could not eat for your whole childhood.” He adds that it requires extra care from the parents to notify the school that the child is vegan and to get adjustments for him. He also suggests that having the parents and the school involved in the diet could prevent other kids from laughing at the child because he/she eats differently, which could lead in him/her being taken “not very seriously”.
For Matej, veganism should be a well-reflected and well-researched choice of lifestyle. Vegan parents interviewed at different protests and meet-ups think that celebrities like Liam Hemsworth, Jennifer Lopez or even Beyoncé endorsing veganism is a good thing as it promotes the diet in the media and allows more information to be given to the public. But Matej thinks that the number of vegans is growing “for the wrong reasons”. “People blindly follow what someone is saying instead of researching and making sure they’re creating their own lifestyle,” he says.
This makes veganism sound like quite a dangerous diet for young children, with hard consequences if not handled properly.
Not so, says Dawn Carr, the mother of an eight-year-old vegan girl: “My daughter has not seen her doctor in years, and she has not missed a day at school.” According to Nuala Calvi, the vegan mother of a baby boy, her doctor is fully supportive of her diet choice: “I asked a doctor about what he thought about raising a vegan kid, and he said it’s healthy but it can be hard because you need to know where to get all your nutrients from.” On a bigger scale, a collaboration between the Vegan Society and the British Dietetic Association suggests that the latter thinks a vegan diet can be suitable at any age as long as you are informed about what to give your child, which is generally seen with a health professional.
“Veganism is so much easier if you’re living in a warmer country,” adds Matej. “You can choose naturally lighter food, but it’s a great way forward if you’re 100 per cent sure what you’re doing. If you have been vegan yourself for more than five years and if you have managed to balance your B12, then it is advisable for your kids.”
All parents interviewed for this article rejected the arguments against veganism for children and claimed their kids were perfectly healthy and thriving.
Aware of the shift in many people’s diets, the NHS even created a page to help vegetarian and vegan parents feeding their kids on these diets. Countering arguments that veganism does not provide the child with enough energy, the NHS shows that there is plant-based high-calorie food such as hummus, bananas, smooth nuts and seed butters (tahini, cashew or peanut butter). However, they recommend not to give only wholegrain foods to children under five as they are high in fibres.
But nutrition is just one of the challenges parents face raising their children to be vegans. Explaining veganism to a child when he comes to the right age can be challenging, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like killing animals. For Ruby Roth, an author who writes children’s books based on veganism like That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals or her latest release The Help Yourself Cookbook For Kids, veganism should not be a shocking experience. She says: “The goal was not to scare, but to involve kids just enough in the conversation to relay the reality of the problems that vegan choices solve.”
To explain to children why eating meat is not necessary and to show the benefits of veganism, she decided to mix cartoons and codes that children love. “Children like being spoken to like adults, and they like to have fun,” says Roth. “So every page of the cookbook is eye-candy, along with being educational and using colourful natural ingredients.”
The awareness about animals’ conditions is, according to parents, mostly what children will use as an argument to explain to their friends why they do not eat meat and how they are “doing something good”. For Dawn Carr, whose daughter has been vegan from birth, it has to be a progressive explanation. “I explained in age-appropriate terms. When the time is right and she will be probably around 16, she will be aware of Paul McCartney’s video for example.” In 2013, the ex-Beatles released a graphic video with PETA called “Glass Walls” to show the “slaughter” of animals in factory farming.
Yet, not all parents take that soft approach. Some like King Cookdaily, the man behind the string of vegan restaurants in the heart of Shoreditch, decided be more direct and to not “lie to [his] kids”. “Whatever I watch, if I’m watching a documentary that has to do with veganism and it’s quite graphic, they will also watch,” he says. “And they are three and seven. They’re a bit shocked by what’s going on obviously, but it’s just being truthful. Then they make up their own mind and they don’t want to have anything to do with that because when you’re a child it’s natural.”
But for Harriet Barclay, working for PETA Kids, the PETA website dedicated to the education of children in terms of veganism and animal protection, being too “graphic” or direct while giving information about the vegan diet to the child can sometimes have the opposite effect. “If children are really shocked by what they see, it will have a lasting impact on them,” she says. “But it might also really upset them and they will not want to think about it. Our work is about engaging them in a positive way through games for example.”
At the Awakening Compassion demo on Trafalgar Square on 18 February 2017, protesters were following this stance and were silently standing with pictures of cute animals, holding strong messages such as “Would you eat me?” Their approach is silent, letting people come to them and start the discussion. These cute pigs, horses or chickens on their placards are aimed to attract people who feel compassion towards them. If most adults looked at them without really daring to approach, or sometimes just passed without even giving them a look, children were more likely to stop and express a profound attraction to these animals, even though they might not understand the message behind the protest yet.
“It can be easy to teach children to make compassionate choices because they don’t want to hurt the animals that they’ve been taught to love,” says Heather Russell.
For David Gore, who organised the Awakening Compassion demo and other silent protests to promote veganism in a peaceful way, children usually have a sort of natural compassion towards animals and advertising is playing on this. A lot of sweets’ packagings feature a cuddly cartoon bear that will attract children, and yet the components of these same sweets are sometimes far from being respectful of animals. “These cartoon characters are saying ‘eat me, eat me’, but when kids know what gelatin is made of they change their minds and they don’t want it anymore,” he says.
Another challenge on their plate is making children eat vegetables as it can be hard to make them like or at least accept them in their plate. Yet as vegans eat only plant-based food and absolutely need the right amount of nutrients and vitamins, there is no other choice but to make children accept vegetables, and parents have found strategies to overcome this challenge, including by making children part of the buying or cooking process.
“I take my son with me and I’ll tell him that we need apples,” says Ajita Teidy, the mum of two-year-old Juno. “He picks them and chooses the colours. Involving him in the vegetable and fruit picking makes him more aware of what he is eating and what he wants to eat.”
As for author Sue Quinn, who wrote The Kids Only Cookbook, involving children in the cooking preparation can be helpful, whether they are vegan or not. “You can’t make children love cooking a healthy meal, but there is good evidence to show that children are more likely to eat something they claim not to like if they’re involved in the cooking process, whether by chopping, stirring or choosing the vegetables or other ingredients.”
But as they grow up, it might not always be possible to share these moments with a child. The biggest challenge and worry shared by vegan parents is when their child will be out of their control, at the canteen or at a friend’s party. There they will not be able to check what he is eating and prevent him from having meat or dairy if they are available.
“I can’t be with him at all times in every situation,” says Teidy. “So I educate him at home, sometimes being a bit brutal about the truth about why it is not necessarily great to eat meat.”
“I can’t control what they eat when they’re with friends or at school,” says David Gore, the vegan father of two vegan children. “I can guide, I can instil, but I can’t enforce. I hope that when they’re older they will continue a vegan lifestyle but I can’t guarantee it, in fact I’m not sure at all, I can only do my best.”
Parents raising vegan children also face a lot of objections, mainly from family and friends, but sometimes also from strangers. And when it comes to contradicting people who claim that raising a child as a vegan from birth is refusing to let him a choice, vegan parents are ready to defend their way of life. “It’s funny,” says Abigail Micklewright, the mother of 17-month-old Florence, who was raised as a vegan from birth. “Whatever lifestyle you have it’s making decisions for your child and that’s the role of a parent until they can make their own decisions. Once she is older and she can make an informed decision and she wants to try something non-vegan – at a friend’s house for example – then I would let her. But in the house it’s going to be vegan.”
Reacting to this, it appears that veganism is transmitted to children because the parents could not see another option but to instil their way of life and their beliefs in their children’s lives. Nuala Calvi says: “I think it would be hypocritical of me to say that I don’t want to kill animals but buying meat for my child.”
Now it is about showing the world that veganism is not just about eating vegetables, but that you can create colourful dishes that children will love. The Instagram endorsement of the vegan trend might help this cause with perfect posts of food, but it can also be seen simply in your local market.
During a vegan meet-up at the Growing Communities Farmers Market in Stoke Newington, North London, Paul Woodbread’s vegan cakes stall proved that a lot of food opportunities apply to vegans, and children were happy to discover his vegan cherry and berries cakes and asked their parents for a slice in front of the stall.
For many vegans met at meet-ups, veganism is “the future”. One of them, Brian Jacobs, working for the vegan resources website Vegan London, defends his diet, which he thinks should be taken up by everyone: “You get one case of scandal or malnutrition and it makes the headlines all around saying that vegan diet is dangerous for children. This isn’t dangerous. Some people just need to plan a little bit better than others.”