By now you’ve probably read about the malnourished baby in Italy that was removed from his home for emergency surgery. You probably also heard the family was vegan. What happened to the child is terrible. It also has nothing to do with veganism.
It is possible and not even that difficult to raise active, energetic, thriving vegan children. I should know. My 6-year-old and 8-year-old have been vegan since conception. When I was pregnant with my first child, people would ask me with careful concern if I was planning to raise my kid vegan. The tone made it feel more like they were asking if I planned to keep my kid in the fringe cult I was somehow being brainwashed by.
But is it really “brainwashing” to raise vegan kids?
As vegan blogger (and dad) Jonathan Auyer observes, “Veganism or not, all parents have to make choices for their children — limiting choices, eliminating others, guiding the child down this path rather than some other. We have to make the choices (for now), and, eventually, baby can start to make them on his or her own.”
Veganism felt like the only way to be a decent human and honor my commitment to lessening suffering in the world. It was an easy, immediate action, with little cost to me, that would hopefully have a big benefit for the planet and everyone trying to live on it.
While pregnant with both my kids, midwives poked and prodded me, took my blood, tested for everything and declared me healthy and “hardy.” Then, and later when I was breastfeeding, I ate what I usually ate, but more of it: pancakes, nut butter, oatmeal, grain bowls, tofu scramble, burritos, curries, smoothies, veggie burgers and lots of water.
When my sons were babies, they had juicy, fat rolls, bright eyes and drooly smiles. They met or exceeded their developmental milestones, and now that they’re lurching into adolescence, they eat — constantly — dried fruit, rice and beans, tofu scramble, avocados, nori, PBJs, trail mix, oatmeal, smoothies and, yeah, the occasional cupcakes and doughnuts (please send money).
Like most kids — vegan or not — they take a daily multivitamin, and most of the milk, bread and cereals they consume are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Like other people who live in Seattle — vegan or not — we have our vitamin D levels checked. Raising vegan kids doesn’t feel different or weird to me; we just eat a variety of foods, and I make sure there’s enough of it. I’m lucky I have the resources to make that happen.
This is the story I hear from most of my vegan-parent friends. See, just as there are meat-eating parents who are neglectful and misinformed, there can also be vegan parents who fit that description. But when was the last time you saw a headline that read, “Omnivore child hospitalized and taken into custody”?
The National Children’s Alliance reported that nearly 80 percent of the estimated 679,000 abused children in the U.S. were victims of neglect in 2013. Yet when children in omnivorous families are malnourished, the flashy headline (if there is a headline at all) is never centered on casting doubt on their diets.
It turns out vegan diets are widely considered by experts to be healthy at all ages, even during pregnancy. The American Dietetic Association reports: “Well-planned vegetarian diets [including total vegetarian or vegan diets] are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.”
Of course, it’s possible to be a vegan who doesn’t eat enough or who eats junk. (Did you know, for example, that Skittles are vegan? Which is relevant if, like me, you live in Seahawks Country.) “Vegan” and “healthy” are not necessarily synonyms, but neither are “omnivorous” and “healthy,” as the bulk of emerging research on the American diet reflects.
I don’t know the particulars of the Italian family, but it is obvious they didn’t have a clear picture of the nutritional needs of growing babies and children, vegan or otherwise. If a 14-month-old child weighs as much as a 3-month-old, there are bigger problems that should have been caught during regular checkups. Healthy vegan children are the rule, not the exception.
So what was wrong with the Italian family? Plenty: disordered thinking about eating, lack of medical supervision/intervention, neglect and lack of education on food and nutrition.
And none of that has anything to do with veganism.