Are you vegan? Have you ever considered raising your child as one? Parents who are bringing their children up vegan tell us why they’re doing it
Growing up, Emilie Tan, 32, struggled with digestive problems. When she switched to a plant-based diet in 2011, they disappeared. Now, together with her husband Luke, the endurance athlete runs The Awake Method, a platform helps raise awareness of the benefits of a plant-fuelled life. The couple recently welcomed their first child, a daughter who will be brought up vegan.
Like them, more people are turning to a plant-based diet in Singapore, for reasons such as health, animal welfare, and the environment. Many parents who have eliminated meat from their diet are naturally keen to raise their children as vegetarian or vegan as well. (Vegetarians do not eat meat, but consume eggs and dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Vegans exclude these and all other animal products from their diet.)
“It is okay to raise your child on a vegetarian diet, provided that you know the correct choice of food for your child. One can derive adequate protein from various plant sources, such as beans, peas, and nuts,” saysProfessor Quak Seng Hock, Head & Senior Consultant at National University Hospital’s Division of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Nutrition and Hepatology.
However, he recommends that children on a plant-based diet have a regular intake of egg (both the white and the yolk). “This is to ensure that your child has all the essential amino acids needed for his or her growth and development. Eggs and milk are the best quality protein sources, and egg yolk is rich in iron and various vitamins that may not be adequate from plant sources.”
But no matter what kind of diet your child is on, there should also be “proper supplementation to ensure any nutritional gaps are plugged,” he adds.
Starting your Child on a Vegan Diet
The rising popularity of plant-based diets and the increasing number of plant-based meal options outside of home is helping vegan parents and children. However, social curiosity or disdain is still prevalent. The lack of social support often faced by many parents can be discouraging. Furthermore, news reports of infants dying due to restricted diets has fuelled the negative publicity.
In 2007, a six-week-old baby died of malnourishment in Atlanta, United States. His vegan parents had fed him a diet of soy milk and apple juice. It was reported that the child weighed just 3.5 pounds, or 1.58 kg, when he died in April 2004.
In 2011, the 11-month-old baby of a French vegan couple died due to complications from vitamin deficiencies. She had been exclusively breastfed, even though solid foods should be introduced to a baby’s diet after 6 months of age.
And last year, the 11-month-old son of a vegan mum was rushed to hospital in Pennsylvania, United States, for malnourishment. He was allegedly fed only fruits and nuts.
Is it Okay for my Child to Go Vegan then?
It all boils down to eating right, says Prof. Quak. Growing children need adequate calcium for growing bones and teeth. They also need sufficient iron, as well as a wide range of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D and B12. To avoid nutritional deficiencies, ensure your child gets his required nutrition through supplements if necessary.
“Certain vitamins such as vitamin B12 are not adequate from plant sources. Thus it is recommended to take supplemental iron, vitamins (particularly vitamin B12), calcium, and omega 3 fat,” says Professor Quak.
If you are thinking of starting your child on a plant-based diet, here are some ways to do so safely and successfully:
1. Educate Yourself
Knowing what your child needs for healthy development is crucial. “Be well-read and knowledgeable about the diet and how best to get the required nutrition,” says Halimah Illavarasi, a freelance writer and baker in Singapore.
Raising her son as a vegan came naturally to this Singaporean mum since she turned vegan three years before he was born. Her husband is vegan as well. Halimah’s son, now four, has hit his developmental milestones beautifully, easing initial reservations from her in-laws.
Feed your child a varied diet too, Halimah adds. “It is easy and tempting to fall back on staple favourites or the same types of food. Introduce a wide range of foods (such as seeds, nuts, legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables) so that your child benefits from different sources of nutrition,” she explains. “The bonus is that he or she will gain an appreciation of food!”
2. Be Confident about your Choice
Going vegan takes conviction, and eating out can be tricky. Social pressure or curiosity can also be disheartening. The vegan mummies we met for this story say that confidence is the key to success.
“Know why you chose a vegan diet for your child. Is it for health, the environment, or ethical reasons? Having knowledge and confidence about your choice helps to resist peer or (well-meaning) family pressure,” adds Halimah.
“Be confident. Know that you are doing the right thing for yourself and your baby,” advises Emilie. “Research has shown that a well-planned whole food plant-based diet is suitable for every stage of life, including infancy, pregnancy and breastfeeding.” Did you know, for instance, that breast milk is considered vegan?
3. Have a Support System
Connect with other vegan mums. “Surrounding yourself with people who share and support your values is very important,” says Emilie. “No one needs negativity, especially when you are pregnant or a new mum.”
Emilie maintained a vegan diet throughout her pregnancy. “I chose an obstetrician who was supportive of my choice. She did nag a little at the start of my pregnancy because I did not drink milk, but she came round when she saw how attentive I was with my nutrition and supplementation, and that my baby was growing well.”
Halimah agrees that it’s important to find a community of people who share similar philosophies. “If you’re new to veganism, find a community for yourself. They will be your support system, especially when you have questions on how to progress as a vegan.”
Resources for Vegan Moms/Dads
The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book by Reed Mangels
Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care by Dr. Benjamin Spock
The Kind Mama by Alicia Silverstone
The Gluten-Free Vegan by Susan O’Brien
V is for Vegan: The ABCs of Being Kind by Ruby Roth
Vegetarian confinement recipes are easily available via a quick Google search.
Online communities such as Facebook groups and forums (like this one on the Singapore Motherhood forum) are precious resources for aspiring plant-based parents, where parents provide tips and mutual support.
You can even be part of groups that are not necessarily based in Singapore — because the more support the better!