Let me start this way: I have an agenda here. I’m vegan and, like most ethical vegans, do really wish everybody in the world would get on board. After my first ever encounter with a vegan mother who is raising her children vegan, my aim was to write an article affirming the viability of veganism as a lifelong lifestyle choice.
Although my personal experience with the vegan diet has given me little reason to question its healthfulness, I have always harbored doubts about veganism’s appropriateness for toddlers and infants.
One reason for this is that I haven’t had much experience with little little ones. To me, a parent’s ability to successfully turn something as fragile as an infant into a thriving toddler is nothing short of miraculous. I hardly trust myself to hold a baby and, if I were responsible for nourishing one, am not sure that I would be ready to do anything that could be called alternative or experimental.
A second reason for my long-time uncertainty is that when I made the transition from vegetarian to vegan in 2004, the Atlanta couple Jade Saunders and Lamont Thomas were all over the news. The two — vegans, first-time parents, crackpots — had attempted to support their baby on a diet of soymilk and apple juice, exclusively, and at six-months old, their son died of starvation.
In 2007, after a years-long deliberation, Saunders and Thomas were sentenced to life in prison for involuntary manslaughter. I would also charge the couple — along with a handful of other careless vegan and raw food vegan parents — with giving veganism a bad public image.
Early in our conversation Vicki Warfield dismissed the claim that her lifestyle is a risky endeavor. Regarding the above-mentioned infanticide, she said, “Yeah, a lot of people said, ‘Isn’t that illegal? Haven’t babies died from that?’ but I say: ‘Listen, the baby didn’t die because of the vegan diet. He died because all they gave him was soymilk. You’d be in pretty bad shape too if all you ate was soymilk!'”
Following my talk with Vicki I was excited about the possibility of vindicating veganism. I was rapidly able to get in contact with two other vegan mothers, who were equally enthused about the project.
The three interviewees, with varying amounts of experience with veganism (from 18 years to just 7 months), all have children sub four years of age (between them: three 3-year-olds, one 18-month old and one newborn). They shared experiences and tips, and speculated on some of the challenges they’ll face as their children grow more independent.
Overall, the interviews went as hoped. As our talks progressed, I became more and more convinced of what I’d been hoping to be convinced of.
It all sounded so great, in fact, that I almost glossed right over one knotty point, which came up in my final interview. Admittedly, it wasn’t until I received a follow-up email from that mother, requesting that I allow her testimony to be anonymous, that I realized the significance of her story. In deference to her wishes, I will use the aliases Debra (for the mother) and Daisy (for the child) throughout this article.
Veganism in Kidspeak
I met with Vicki Warfield in a community park in East Boulder, early last Friday. Just as I folded open my steno notebook and asked question number one (“So, how long have you been vegan?”), her son Ben zipped over from the playground and said, “I’m very hungry. I want my lunch.” It was approximately 10 am, but Vicki acquiesced.
He clambered onto the picnic table between Vicki, her infant Adele, and me and opened his lunchbox. His lunch was neatly separated into four compartments, covering the most important food groups: grain, fruit, vegetables and protein. Ben started with the “chicken.”
“Chi-cken!” he said to himself as he picked up a nugget.
Vicki giggled and, in her quiet, gentle manner, corrected him: “Veggie chicken nugget — right Ben? Veggie chicken?”
“Yah. Real chicken I can’t eat it?”
Ben is three years old and Vicki laughed, telling me: “That’s about the extent of his education in veganism for now.”
Ben ate a chicken nugget, a corner of Rudi’s organic raisin bread and menaced a steamed carrot with his tiny fork before asking if he could please stand up from the table. He then spent approximately twenty minutes catching dandelion heads in his hands and bringing them over to his mother to ask, “Want to see a reew firefly, ma?”
While she didn’t feel the need to correct his botanical misidentification, Vicki admitted that — especially with school approaching — she really needs to get Ben accustomed to using the right words (mostly just the prefix “soy”) for the foods he eats, so that he can distinguish them from the ones he cannot.
Never having discussed veganism with anyone under the age of thirteen, I had never been made to reflect on this before, but terminology isn’t self-evident here. The hierarchy implied by adjectives like “real” versus “fake” or “faux” is clearly to the detriment of the latter, vegan options. And a similar issue arises with “normal” or “regular,” because, normal by whose standards? Normal milk to a vegan is not synonymous with cow’s milk. Alternately, I’ve observed that some vegs take the metonymy route — using Boca and Silk as one often uses Kleenex or Band-Aid.
Guess what I ate at school today!
The necessity of communicating veganism to one’s child is not lost on recently-vegan mother Mary Chiancola.
After his last day of preschool, her three-year-old son Nicolas — who made the transition to veganism this past January along with Mary and her husband — came home with the vegan snacks she had prepared for him, untouched, and happily reported: “Mommy, guess what? We had Pizza Hut at school today!”
Nicolas has only been a vegan since the start of 2011, and so Mary didn’t make a fuss. It was an honest mistake. After all, Nicolas and his brother Zachary still have pizza all the time at home, now prepared with fake cheese. I mean real soy cheese, vegan cheese, Daiya. (You see what I mean?) She acknowledges the fact that this sort of occurence is inevitable so long as he is too young to totally grasp the concept of veganism.
Still, she says that her son does understand, on a basic level, his parents’ ethical motivations for avoiding all animal products. If you ask Nicolas Chiancola why he doesn’t drink cow’s milk, he will say, “because it makes calves sad.”
“Mommy, what’s meat?”
For Vicki’s Ben, a vegan from birth, a slip-up of this sort is a graver concern. For example, when Ben accidentally got his hands on some non-vegan cheese around 18 months, 24+ hours of digestive distress ensued. This was due to the fact that his body has never developed (and, likely, will never develop) the enzymes necessary for the digestion of animal proteins.
For this reason, Vicki is glad to be sending her son to a preschool in Boulder. Although he is the only vegan in his class, there is a general high level of awareness about dietary concerns such as gluten-free, peanut allergies and vegetarianism in Boulder, and consequently the teachers enforce a “no snack swapping” policy to the best of their ability.
While Vicki imagines that her son will one day be a “vegan ambassador” of sorts, she is also cautious about inculcating him too soon.
“What’ll I do when he asks me: ‘If it’s wrong to eat meat, how come my friends do it’? I don’t know; that’ll be a challenge.”
It is important, she feels, that he does not judge his classmates and their families for their consumption of animal products.
Additionally, discussions of veganism can quickly turn gory (consult PETA’s “Meet Your Meat” or basically any of their propaganda, if you don’t believe me). Vicki isn’t too hot on the idea of explaining death, let alone factory farming, to her son.
She has, therefore, answered his queries delicately thus far. For example, when Ben and his classmates were introduced to the food chain and Ben wanted to know what wolves eat.
“Meat,” said Vicki.
“Well, meat is… Meat is what wolves eat.”
Vegan parents know their vitamin ABC’s.
While Vicki aptly dodges questions that put her son’s blissful innocence/ignorance in jeopardy, she very ably and readily responded to my questions regarding veganism’s nutritional merits. She even listed off some of her favorite sources for legitimate, up-to-date scientific findings that support her plant-based lifestyle (including the Mayo Clinic Online, the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization).
Mary was likewise able to answer all of my nutrition inquiries without pause. She expressed annoyance at the fact that vegans are quizzed so often on nutrition, whereas people eating the typical American diet don’t seem to worry. She said, “I see some parents sending their kids to school with, you know, those Uncrustable things. White, white bread… ugh! Why aren’t they asking themselves, ‘Is my kid getting enough vitamin A, vegetables, vitamin C?’ I just don’t get that.”
She remembers with amusement the response of one of her husband’s friends — himself overweight — when they had shared their plan to go vegan. “Wow. So like, what will you get when you go to McDonald’s?”
Mary observed that vegans in general are more aware of nutrition than your average adult. In my small survey, this contention held true; all three of the interviewees had studied nutrition during college.
Here are the mothers’ responses to some of the most common nutritional “pitfalls” of veganism:
- 1. What do you do about B12?
The Chiancola boys drink a lot of B12-fortied soymilk. Since his weaning Ben W. has enjoyed a daily cocktail of Earth’s Best Organic Soy Formula mixed with DHA oil and Brewer’s yeast, which Vicki says is “super healthy, but indescribably awful-tasting. I mean, the DHA tastes like algae, for starters. But he loves it, I don’t know.” Debra is unconcerned about her daughter’s B12 intake, as Daisy eats heaps of nutritional yeast.
- 2. How about calcium?
Vicki (sic): “We don’t ever have to take our cats or dogs to the vet for their osteoporosis, do we? And did you ever think about gorillas? I know we aren’t the same as gorillas, but it makes you wonder. I mean, they are vegan and they are big, muscular animals! What is so very different about humans that we are the only animal that drinks milk into adulthood? Are our bones really so different from those of every other mammal on earth?”
- 3. And protein?
Vicki: “Oh, beans, nut butters, tofu… When I was pregnant, my thing was Amy’s freezer burritos — lots and lots of ’em. But did you know that Americans actually get way too much protein? And that getting too much — since your body needs B vitamins to process it — getting too much protein, you get low on B vitamins! Plus, too much protein inhibits calcium absorption too.”
Dieter’s dream: toddler’s nightmare?
I also learned that another “problem” of the vegan diet is that it is calorie poor. “Where’s the problem?” you might ask. While this may sound like a boon to anyone of a Hollywoodian dieter mentality, it does complicate matters for vegan parents with toddlers, as children at that age are notoriously picky eaters.
Mary assured that her sons were dealing with this well and told me that her oldest was actually overweight for his height and age.
Vicki says that Ben eats very frequently — a fact that I was able to observe firsthand, since he returned to his lunchbox three or four times during the course of our interview. She commented: “So he has to eat more often, so what? You know, I’ve never seen a toddler starve to death from not eating. They know when they’re hungry and they will eat ’til they’re full.”
Most versed on the struggle to pack on the calories was Debra. At nearly three years old, her daughter Daisy weighs a mere 20 lbs.
20 pounds. That’s the weight of a car tire or an overweight cat. Or an average American child at just nine months.
In her follow-up email Debra claimed to have misspoken; she wrote (sic):”i think she is 33 inches tall and her weight is actually about 24 pounds, now that i’ve checked (contrary to what i said on the phone!)”
At around 12 months, due to her exceptionally slow development, Daisy was diagnosed with the growth disorder “failure to thrive” — a diagnosis that Debra downplays as a “ridiculous scare diagnosis.” She insists that, “children come in a wide spectrum of sizes.” While this may be true, it is not as though Daisy’s measurements are just a smidge left of the 95th percentile bull’s eye. At 33 inches and 20-24 lbs, she is missing the dartboard entirely, falling below the fifth percentile for her age.
When asked about the potential consequences of her daughter’s condition, Debra responded, “I actually don’t know the answer to this!” Kidshealth.org provides the following prognosis:
“Most diagnoses of failure to thrive are made in infants and toddlers in the first few years of life — a crucial period of physical and mental development. After birth, a child’s brain grows as much in the first year as it will grow during the rest of life. Poor nutrition during this period can have permanent negative effects on mental development.”
Although Debra is dubious about the diagnosis and cannot tell me much about it, she and Daisy do make the trip to Denver every few months to see a pediatric dietician.
Debra admits that her daughter’s diet has been a “real hard time.” Although she knows other vegan children, she doesn’t know any who are faced with F.T.T. and she attributes Daisy’s unique condition to the convergence of three factors.
First of all, she mentions her own diminutive stature (5’3” and 115 lbs) and the fact that she too was a tiny child. “It’s in her genes, I guess.”
Another factor is the fact that she is a strong believer in “self-weaning” and therefore continues to feed her daughter breast milk twice a day.
Lastly, and begrudgingly, the longtime vegan admitted that the lack of calorie and fat-dense animal products — eggs, for example — in her daughter’s diet may exacerbate the issue. Her exact words were: “Yeah, I know that if she were eating eggs, we wouldn’t have this… problem.”
While most of her friends don’t bother to raise the issue with her, one question she often gets is: “Well, what if you just gave her an egg from a hen you know?” Her usual reply is:
“I’m simply not comfortable with taking an egg from a chicken without her consent. Anyway, protein content is the only benefit of egg consumption, and the same amount of (or more) protein can be found in plant-based foods easily, without the added negatives (like cholesterol). There’s just no reason to eat an egg!”
The main struggle for her is to encourage Daisy to consume iron and zinc, both of which are contained in breast milk, but not absorbed by the nursing child after ten months. According to her “wonderfully supportive” nutritionist, iron and zinc are all the more vital because they act as appetite-stimulants. Finding an adequate source of these is a daily struggle as the three-year-old “won’t touch leafy greens” nor supplements.
Her staple food is noodles doused in Earth Balance buttery spread and topped with Bacos. Debra says, “I’m trying to load on the fat however I can.”
The vegan witch-hunt
As I sorted through the information the three mothers had provided me, I couldn’t stop thinking about Debra’s plea for anonymity. Her email read (sic):
“hi there – now i’m a bit nervous about making all this info public – mostly because i don’t want anyone coming after us for having a very small child who is vegan! wondering if there is a way you can write it so that either it is anonymous, or her physical stats aren’t given? (…) sorry, i just remember hearing stories of vegan families being hunted down by local authorities!”
What had motivated this? Embarrassment? Guilt? Fear? In particular, I was disturbed by the line, “vegan parents hunted down by local authorities.” Was Debra really afraid of Child Protective Services? Or was she concerned that Daisy’s difficult development could be used as an argument against the lifestyle she, a former vegan activist, feels so strongly about?
Looking into it, I immediately came upon an article published on naturalnews.com this past March. Shockingly enough, its author, Mike Adams, actually encourages vegan parents to lie to Child Protective Services:
“They really are out to get you. […] Never admit to state authorities that you are raising your baby on a vegan diet.”
If observing happy, healthy Ben Warfield and bearing witness to Vicki’s and Mary’s attentiveness to their sons’ nutritional needs had bolstered my original argument, the above article and Debra’s unwillingness to go public as a vegan mother were like ugly cracks, zigzagging down to my argument’s very foundation: namely, the basic assumption that any parent — vegan or not — would put his/her child’s well-being first. Ergo, if vegan children exist, then vegan child-raising must be sound.
I wondered: how many vegan parents out there have followed the advice of “Health Ranger” Mike Adams and are keeping their child’s veganism a secret? Meanwhile Vicki’s “I’ve never known a toddler to starve…” and Debra’s “I don’t know any other vegan children with this condition” reverberated in my head.
How does guardedness about the difficulties involved in vegan parenting serve the vegan cause? As Debra is knowledgeable and certainly not neglectful towards her daughter, wouldn’t it be beneficial to others for her to admit openly that the vegan diet does indeed require special attention?
It seems that this argument remains divided between those omnivores who think the vegan lifestyle and children don’t mesh, versus the vegans — parents or not — who are ignorant of the difficulties the vegan diet can incur because those facing them are hesitant to come forward or because they themselves are willfully turning a blind eye to an issue that brings their lifestyle into question.
It would seem that Debra stands somewhere in the middle, and I am grateful to her for having contributed the story of her and Daisy’s struggle to this debate.
I encourage any readers who are vegan parents to share your thoughts in as non-partisan a fashion as possible. Anonymously, if you must.