Can your kids go vegan and still get all their vitamins?
It's the diet du jour - but is it safe to let your children eat only vegetables and nothing else
Published 23/02/2016 | 02:30
Veganism is the hottest topic in health these days, with celebrities such as Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez touting the benefits of a plant-based diet and Instagrammers posting glossy images of spiralised courgettes and pimped-up porridge.
Even Nigella Lawson, the doyenne of luxurious, delicious cooking, features a vegan chocolate cake in her latest cookbook.
However, as a vegan diet excludes all animal products including meat, dairy, fish, and eggs, as well as animal by-products such as honey, it has long been considered a restrictive lifestyle reserved for those with ample time and money to spend on high-end organic ingredients.
But now, more people than ever are adopting a plant-based diet for health, environmental and ethical reasons and for many families across Ireland, it is a way of life that they say is suitable for everyone, even children.
Wicklow-based mother-of-one, Glauce Lucas, became vegan 18 years ago while living in her native Brazil. She made the change for ethical reasons but says that it was harder to do then as vegans were not catered for.
"I went completely vegan within one week," says the 40-year-old. "I did miss cheese as there were none of the alternatives available then like there are today and soya milk came as a powder that tasted awful."
When Glauce became pregnant with her son, Enrico, four years ago, she remained vegan throughout the pregnancy and was keen to raise her child on the same diet.
"My diet helped me to have a good pregnancy and my obstetrician was very supportive of my choices. She made sure I was getting all the vitamins I needed, like B12 and iron," she says.
"As both Enrico's father and I are vegan, it was natural for us to raise him vegan and our families were supportive of that. However, we were living in Rome after he was born and I had to go to four paediatricians before I found one who would support our decision."
Glauce says that education and research are an important part of vegan parenting and she provides information and support for other vegan families on her website, All About Vegan Food.com.
"It is important not to assume that you know everything. Even though I have been vegan for many years, I still read a lot so that I can keep myself informed. I am very conscious that my son is still young and growing and that he needs more than I do.
"I see parents doubting themselves when they have family members or friends questioning them over their choices. There can be a lot of pressure on vegan parents and they do get upset over it."
While Enrico loves foods like hummus and almond milk, Glauce is open to whatever choices he makes when he is older.
"I will always cook vegan food at home but if he eats something else at school or at a friend's then that will be his decision," she says. "I try to explain to him the reasons behind our choices so that when he is older he will understand it for himself and not see it as an obligation."
Not all medical experts agree on the suitability of a vegan diet for children. According to Dr John Fleetwood, a GP at the Carysfort Clinic in Dublin, protein from animal sources is best for a child's development.
"Veganism is not a safe way to nourish a growing child," he says. "Children need first-class protein for growth and regardless of what the promoters of veganism state, meat is the best source of that protein.
"Many vegans need dietary supplements to enhance their diet which in itself points to the fact that the vegan diet is deficient in nutrition. Their point that we eat too much meat may have some factual base but their argument that a vegan diet is safe and nutritious is on very dangerous ground."
Nonetheless, the trend is becoming more and more common. Mother of two, Ciara Norton, has been plant-based for the past 12 years. Her passion for animals led her to become vegan at a time when it was almost unheard of in Ireland.
"I was 16 and the change was difficult, as I didn't like vegetables back then," laughs the Cork woman. "I had only heard about veganism through Home Economics at school and I didn't know any vegans. I am from the countryside so there weren't any vegan products available either."
Ciara and her vegan fiancé, John, raise their sons, Rian (3) and Oran (8 months), on an entirely vegan lifestyle - eating a plant-based diet, shunning materials such as wool, fur, leather or silk and only using vegan-friendly household products. She says that living a life without animal products is not as difficult as it sounds.
"When Rian goes to crèche I give him a packed lunch or if there is a party I will send in a slice of cake or a cupcake for him. I find it cheap enough as we eat a lot of vegetables, beans and rice."
When it comes to ensuring her boys are getting adequate nutrition, Ciara has a relaxed approach and believes a diet full of fresh food is key. She says that criticism from others does not bother her.
"I don't count each gram of protein or anything. I have had some people online tell me that I am forcing my choices on my children and that they will be unhealthy but everyone who knows us sees how healthy and happy they are."
Father of three, David Wallace, adopted a vegan diet for health reasons, after being diagnosed with the inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, in 2011.
"I was at a very low point with my symptoms and I was told that I would have to be medicated for the rest of my life," he explains.
"After doing some research, I decided to cut out all animal products and I noticed an immediate improvement. While I had always eaten healthily and exercised, I was drinking protein shakes and eating meat and it wasn't helping my condition."
David is still plant-based five years later and his wife, Michelle, along with their children, have also adopted a mainly vegan diet.
"My wife still has that fear that the kids may miss out on some nutrients, so she gives them some dairy from time to time but she is gradually moving in the same direction as me," he says. "I would be happy for our children to grow up entirely vegan."
According to consultant dietitian at Longford Medical, Caoimhe McDonald, while there are many health benefits linked to a vegan diet, a family considering plant-based living needs to be aware of specific nutritional needs.
"If appropriately planned, a vegan diet can provide for the needs of people from all stages of life but particular attention should be paid to adequate energy, protein intake and sources of essential fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins B12 and D," she says.
"Pregnant and nursing mothers eating a vegan diet should consult a dietitian to ensure that the nutritional needs of both the mother and baby are met, and pregnant women should eat plenty of iron-rich foods with vitamin C, as well as calcium-rich foods."
When it comes to raising vegan children, consultant paediatric dietitian, Ruth Charles, says that while the diet is trendy right now, the majority of parents are not making the decision lightly.
"In my experience it is not a snap decision but a lifestyle choice made by parents who are usually very well informed and who put a lot of work into ensuring that their child's vegan diet is up to scratch," she says.
However, David and his family believe that their vegan diet has helped them to feel better and believe in time, it will become a more mainstream option.
"I will be 38 this year and I feel better than ever and the kids are healthy," he says. "I think veganism is definitely growing in Ireland."