Angelina Jolie claims a vegan diet damaged her health but are vegetarian children missing out?
OUTSPOKEN Hollywood star Angelina Jolie recently caused controversy by criticising the vegan diet. The actress admitted that she used to be vegan but gave up as she feared it damaged her health.
"I was a vegan for a long time, and it nearly killed me. I found I was not getting enough nutrition," she said.
Her comments came after the influential American Dietetic Association issued a report giving the thumbs-up to appropriately planned vegetarian diets -- either vegetarian or vegan.
"Vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."
Vegan diets are completely plant based. All animal products such as cheese and milk are excluded, while vegetarians eat dairy products.
The Dietetic Association also found that vegetarian and vegan diets are fine for all age groups.
"Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation."
Vegan and vegetarian diets for children have not been without controversy. Last year a London couple won a two-year legal battle to prevent their five-year-old son from being taken into care because social workers believed his health had been damaged by a meat and dairy-free diet.
The Vegetarian Society of Ireland told us that one of the most frequent queries they receive is from parents enquiring about dietary issues relating to raising vegetarian kids.
So just what is it like to raise babies and young children as vegans and vegetarians? Are they being nutritionally deprived or are they the healthiest children in the playground?
For Wicklow mum Hana Hall the decision to raise her two children Martha (five) and Noah (three) as vegetarians wasn't difficult as she's been vegan herself for 25 years.
"We're confident and happy in our choice that we're providing them with all the nourishment they need. When they're older they'll make their own choices but all I can do now is hand them on my value system," she says.
She's adamant that they're as healthy as any other child who has meat in their diet. "They have had their bloods done and their iron levels are fine. Infection wise they just get the odd cough and cold like every other kid but nothing major."
Hana decided herself to become vegetarian at the age of eight and hasn't looked back.
"I had a teacher who was a vegetarian who inspired me. I stopped eating meat. Luckily my parents took it in their stride because they didn't think it would last," she jokes.
When her first child, Martha, was born, Hana breastfed her as normal and then progressed to the usual pureed vegetables stage. When the time came to introduce protein such as chicken she replaced this with lentils and beans.
The Greystones mum-of-two found that tried and tested vegetarian cookbooks were an invaluable tool for rustling up good food for her two veggie babies. In particular she followed the Rose Elliot books and found them very helpful.
Five-year-old Martha remained vegan until recently when she expanded her culinary palate to include some dairy products.
"It was through her own interest in trying different food that Martha started eating dairy products such as cheese," says Hana.
"We experiment with food. I get them into growing their own and this encourages an interest in sampling different foods such as quinoa, sea vegetables, tofu and soy.
She's convinced of the health-giving benefits of a vegetarian diet for all age groups.
"Vegetarians have been living wonderfully healthy lives in all parts of the world like India and South America for a very long time," she adds.
Even though both her children are vegetarian, Hana says it doesn't make her life any different to any other busy parent.
"We all know what it is like to deal with a fussy kid who wants to eat junk. Parents with kids of this age are all dealing with the same problems!" she says.
She encountered little resistance from the health service. During her pregnancies the staff at Holles Street were supportive and never saw any problems. Hana was also lucky with her choice of GP who was open to alternative diets and quite well read on the subject.
Colm O'Brien, chairman of the Vegetarian Society of Ireland, said that it's important to keep informed and abreast of new nutritional developments, such as the importance of omega 3 for babies and vitamin B12 for development.
"For instance you can get omega 3 from plants like nuts and seeds which is great for vegetarians," says Colm.
Primary school teacher Póilín Ní Leathlobhair has three children, Gráinne (11) Vincent (nne) and Séamus (six) who she has raised as vegetarians.
If their school attendance record is anything to go by, the diet is really working for them.
"The kids are incredibly healthy and rarely sick. In fact that last time they saw the doctor was at the hairdressers!" she says.
Póilín became a vegetarian 15 years ago, mainly for health reasons, and found that it boosted energy levels and improved her health.
"This was the reason I decided to raise my children vegetarian. It isn't a decision you can make overnight but I was lucky at the early stages of pregnancy I had done some reading as I had to think about what I was going to give my baby instead of meat."
The mum-of-three from Abbeyleix, Co Laois, was able to give her babies protein in foods like tofu, cheese, beans and eggs. She also had a few handy tips like giving her children vitamin C to enhance iron absorption.
There was some official support too. Póilín was grateful to come across a leaflet by the Health Promotion Unit on food and babies, which contained a section on weaning advice for veggies.
"I remember it said, and this was very reassuring, that a vegetarian and vegan diet can provide all nutrients needed for a baby," she says.
Póilín also points out that just because a child is on a carnivorous diet doesn't mean they're getting all their nutrients.
"We've all heard of children being fed all kinds of unsuitable foods. Nutrition is an important issue for all parents and we need to keep ourselves well informed whether we are vegetarian or meat eaters," she adds.
Health & Living