UAE Veganuary: Is veganism healthy for kids and babies?

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Is it safe to raise kids as vegans?
Is it safe to raise kids as vegans?
Image Credit: Shutterstock

After the excesses of the festive season and the sluggishness of a locked-down year, January brings with it the chance to reflect and start afresh in a shiny new year. It also ushers in Veganuary – an initiative that encourages people all over the world to try out veganism for the first month of the year. But, although veganism is often seen as a healthy lifestyle choice, critics claim that it can be harmful for some, especially for babies and young children.

What is veganism?

A vegan diet is one that cuts out all animal products and animal-derived products – it goes beyond vegetarianism and means cutting out eggs and dairy as well as meat and fish. However, veganism is not only a diet but a lifestyle choice that avoids consuming, using, or exploiting animals as much as realistically possible. For some vegans this can even include eschewing plant products that use animals in their production such as honey (bees), figs (wasps) and even avocado (bees involved in their production), as well as avoiding clothes, cosmetics and toiletries that contain animal-based or animal-derived materials. In modern times, veganism tends to involve an awareness of environmental issues too.

How is it different from vegetarianism?

Vegetarians cut out meat and fish, but still eat animal-derived products such as eggs and dairy. Veganism cuts out anything derived from animals or animal exploitation, including animal milks, eggs, butter and so on. Vegans will often also not use anything that has involved an animal in any way, including products that have been tested on animals.

What’s the difference between a vegan and a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet means eating a lot of plant-based foods, but does not necessarily preclude eating meat or animal-derived products. Plant-based also only refers to a diet, whereas veganism is more of a holistic lifestyle movement involving animal welfare and environmental concerns too.

Why is veganism such a big deal right now?

Veganism has never been more on trend. Once seen as an obscure and restrictive form of dieting, the lifestyle, health and environmental movement has skyrocketed in recent years and is now here to stay – 2020 Google Trends data suggests that interest in veganism has doubled since 2015, long since surpassing online-search interest in vegetarianism, while the number of new vegan products available on the market has mushroomed by 250% since 2010 to keep up with the burgeoning demand. Now you can find vegan products in most supermarkets, while big companies such as Ikea and McDonalds have even started to introduce vegan options.

How has the pandemic affected interest in veganism?

Proponents of veganism believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increased interest in veganism as the disruption of travel and normal services around the world has made people increasingly conscious of the vulnerabilities of the food supply chain, and plant-based, vegan foods are seen as more sustainable options than some resource-intensive animal-based products. Veganism’s reputation as a healthy lifestyle choice has also made it popular for people who have become more health-conscious during the pandemic.

What is Veganuary?

Veganuary is an initiative started up in the UK that encourages people worldwide to try to eating vegan for January and beyond. Throughout the year, Veganuary encourages and supports people to move to a plant-based diet as a way of protecting the environmen and promoting animal welfare.

How safe is a vegan diet for children and babies?

While there are some conflicting views on the appropriateness of a vegan diet for children – with some high-profile cases of parents being accused of malnourishing their kids with a vegan diet – medical bodies generally agree that it’s possible to raise healthy children on a vegan diet, so long as close attention is paid to the nutrients they are receiving and supplements are given for any key minerals that it may be difficult for children to get without animal products. But this is not always easy to do without professional help. Here, Jordana Smith, a nutritionist at Genesis Clinic in Dubai, shares her views on the safety of a vegan diet for children.

Should parents raise their children on a vegan diet?

“The common issues with veganism include a deficiency in iron, vitamin B12, calcium and zinc. However if balanced appropriately then it can be done and requirements can be met. However generally speaking, vegan diets tend to be carb heavy and protein light making it more difficult to meet these requirements. We do also need to consider how we are combining foods, for example when eating plant based iron rich foods with foods containing calcium or even teas, we decrease the availability of that iron and so don’t meet requirements.

“Generally speaking I wouldn’t recommend a vegan diet for a baby or young child. They are going through a rapid growth period, particularly in the first year of life and iron is an essential nutrient, probably the most important nutrient, during this stage to ensure growth physically and mentally. It becomes incredibly difficult to meet the necessary requirements without using animal products.

“For babies, there is absolutely no safe plant-based alternative breast milk substitute or formula. Giving a plant-based milk to an infant is dangerous and has been shown to lead to malnutrition. Whether you classify breast milk as vegan, only a mother can decide, but according to vegan society breastfeeding is considered vegan.

‘In terms of an age where I am more cautious, this is generally in the teen age group. Quite often teens will use veganism as a tool to hide an eating disorder or the early stages of an eating disorder.’

What are the health concerns with regards to children eating a solely vegan diet and what can be done to address them?

“The biggest concerns are that due to the high nutrient requirements, it is common for there to be a deficiency in calcium, iron, iodine as well as protein and total energy. However that being said, if we supplement appropriately we can meet requirements. Using foods such a nutritional yeast, chia seeds and flaxseeds, as well as dark leafy greens, will help our children meet their requirements. I would always recommend that you work with a healthcare professional to ensure your food combinations are allowing for optimal absorption.”

How easy is it to feed children a solely vegan diet?

“At home it is relatively easy, however it does become difficult when eating out or socialising with other families. Sometimes children can be stigmatised or singled out for the way they eat. An easy swap for example would be to use a vegan cheese as a simple toastie for school. Unfortunately nuts and seeds (quite often used in vegan diets) are allowed in schools (nuts more so) due to the allergy risk so it does limit choice of foods for school lunches.”

Is it possible to “give yourself” or your child an intolerance or even allergy to dairy or eggs by experimenting with a vegan diet?

“We know that early introduction of the common allergenic foods, such as eggs, has been shown to decrease the likelihood of our children developing an allergy to these foods. So if we exclude completely and never introduce, I do believe that we may be putting them at risk of an allergy later on in life and that we may never know until they one day decide to eat those foods.”

Alison Rego, an Indian expat mum of 7-year-old Kristen and blogger at @Pinksmyink, went vegan with her daughter in 2018.
Alison Rego, an Indian expat mum of 7-year-old Kristen and blogger at @Pinksmyink, went vegan with her daughter in 2018.
Image Credit: Supplied

“My daughter converted me to veganism two years ago and we’ve never looked back”

Alison Rego, an Indian expat mum of 7-year-old Kristen and blogger at @Pinksmyink, went vegan with her daughter in 2018.

“My daughter Kristen and I first turned vegan together in September 2018 . It was initiated by her; I clicked on a video that popped up on my feed on Facebook and she viewed it with me, and afterwards she announced she would not eat animals any longer. I thought it was just a passing fad, but she insisted and I was willing to give it a try. Although it was her idea at first, I am now fully converted to the ideology.

“I wasn’t really worried about trying out veganism as I thought we would just learn along the way, and two and a half years later we have had no problems so far.

“I researched why a plant-based diet is a healthier option – all the boxes it ticks from health to environment; compassion to all living beings and scientifically how fear and slaughter are interlinked.

“As Indians, our diet is predominantly a vegetarian diet that includes lentils , vegetables , protein and carbs daily. Going vegan was thus easy as we replaced the dairy and protein with alternatives

“Sometimes it can be more challenging to maintain strict veganism; my daughter has sometimes eaten a nugget or an ice cream when around other kids; but by and large children absorb and learn from the environment they are exposed to and hence it is fairly easy for her I would think being around a mum who offers and stocks only plan- based foods.

“Eating out vegan can be more of a challenge – the UAE has caught up largely but it would truly be nice to have restaurants incorporate a kids vegetarian / vegan meal on their menus.

“It has now become our way of life. We are what we consume; gut health more and more is being linked to mental health – I believe this has changed me in many positive ways and I can’t see myself changing this new way of life.

“I would 100% recommend going vegan to any family. Incorporating a plant based diet in one life will bring a healthier life to your family. Dairy intolerances are on the rise as much simply because of the process animals go through to continually produce, which include steroids and hormones.

“When I thought about what I was consuming and feeding my daughter – this was a no brainer for me.

“I would say begin by trying veganism 1 or 2 days a week and buy plant based alternatives to the usual food you consume. These are the best two ways to begin.”

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