They’re underweight and I’m worried their diet will stunt their growth but is it morally wrong?
Question: My son was brought up as a meat-eater, but he became a vegan shortly after meeting his now-wife. I was surprised when he told me he was changing his diet, but he’s an adult and I can’t interfere with his choices.
My issue is that their two children — both under five — are being brought up as vegan too. I have serious concerns about this decision and I worry that it’s going to stunt their growth. They look pale and underweight to me — but I get shouted down the moment I even mention it.
The children spend a lot of time with me and my husband, and their parents usually give us batch-cooked foods or extremely detailed recipe instructions when they stay. I’ve started stirring eggs and minced chicken into these foods. The children don’t notice, but I really think it makes a difference.
They recently stayed with me for almost a week and they looked noticeably better after eating my food. I have six children myself and I know when a child is healthy and when a child is lacking in something. And sometimes you just have to trust your maternal instincts. My husband says what I am doing is morally wrong. Is it though?
Answer: On the face of it, your dilemma is about food choices and nutrition but, actually, it goes a lot deeper than that.
Really, the question isn’t about whether your grandchildren should or shouldn’t eat meat. It’s about your responsibility as a grandparent and whether you have the right to interfere in another person’s parenting choices.
I shared your dilemma with Brian O’Sullivan, a family therapist based in Stillorgan and Laois, who says he can “hear your concerns” in your question. “I get a sense that you may find yourself with questions such as, ‘What if he’s not getting enough protein?’ or ‘Will she get enough nutrients to support her growing body?’.
“Naturally, you are concerned that their vegan diet may result in them not getting the nutrients they need to support their growth and development. At face value, that may be a reasonable concern, but have you noticed health authorities consider a plant-based menu as a top choice in terms of optimising health across the life span, while allowing for voices to be heard across a number of themes such as climate, environment and animal welfare?”
O’Sullivan encourages you to put yourself in your son and daughter-in-law’s shoes and ask yourself, honestly, how you might feel if your own mother-in-law or mother blatantly disregarded your parenting choices.
He also wonders how your son or his partner might respond should they become aware of what you’re doing. “Might this be viewed as undermining their parenting authority?” he asks. “I wonder if this could become a barrier in your relationship with your own child, his partner, and your grandchildren.
“The last thing you want is for this issue to undermine your relationship with your child, his partner or your grandchildren"
“The last thing you want is for this issue to undermine your relationship with your child, his partner or your grandchildren. Is there a way that these two opposing ideas around food can co-exist here?”
I also shared your dilemma with Dublin-based vegan nutritionist Lenka Govender of PlantHappyGirl, who often works with families where one member questions the health benefits of a vegan diet.
“But we have a right to choose what we believe in, what we read, who we follow and what we eat,” she says.
“As parents, we make these choices for our kids based on our best knowledge and conscience, and this should be respected by others, including grandparents. Even if they feel they are more experienced, know better or that they have a moral right to overrule.”
Govender says a concerned grandmother is “always coming from a place of love and naturally wants to see her grandkids thrive”. “But instead of betraying the trust of her son, wouldn’t it be better to look for another solution which is aligned with her son’s beliefs? After all, as a mother of six, she had the opportunity to raise her children the way she liked, so isn’t it fair to allow her son to do the same?”
Still, your nutritional concerns remain and Wexford-based plant-based nutrition and health coach Serena Lou says she can understand where they stem from.
“Ultimately, this is coming from a good place,” she says. “You want to ensure your grandchildren are getting all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. And for good reason, as according to the World Health Organisation, one of the major challenges of our time is malnutrition in all its forms.
“Every diet needs to be well planned and it’s important to note that the inclusion of animal-based foods does not guarantee nutritional adequacy. Likewise, the exclusion of animal-based foods does not guarantee an unhealthy diet.”
Lou often directs parents who are bringing up children as vegetarian or vegan to the HSE dietary guidelines for children aged one to four. “They include plant-based foods under each nutrient group, such as unsweetened fortified soy milk and calcium-set tofu for protein and calcium needs, and vitamin C-rich foods to enhance absorption of iron from beans and lentils.
“If your son and his family choose not to eat animal products, whether for animal welfare, environmental or health reasons, their choice should be respected,” she adds. “Sneaking animal foods into their meals is a violation of the values they hold.
“If you have concerns about the children’s nutritional intake, work with both their parents and a registered paediatric dietician to ensure they are getting everything they need through their vegan diet, including required supplementation.”
If you have a dilemma, email firstname.lastname@example.org.