Most have heard the horror stories about babies becoming ill or even dying being raised with a vegan diet. “Child abuse!” They scream. “Those parents should be locked up forever!” They shout. “How dare they take their moral views out on their children!” They proclaim (It’s funny how activists may insist moral viewpoints shouldn’t be taken out on others when they’re minority viewpoints, but no one has a problem with taking out moral viewpoints widely held by the status quo: such as condemning murder, rape, and adultery).
Veganism, in the context of diet, which is the practice of abstaining from the consumption of all animal products, has been increasing in popularity within the last decade, especially among younger generations (Palmer, 2012). Many choose to become vegan for ethical reasons, as for purposes of animal rights and animal welfare, a philosophy or ideology that has existed since period of Ancient Greek philosophers. Pythagoras once said, “As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.”
With the recent spark in vegan popularity, most major grocery chains now cater to this demographic by having a vegan or a health food section, which may include tofu, tempeh, quinoa, and gluten-containing mock meats such as veggie dogs and burgers. While veganism mainly has its roots in animal welfare/rights, health concern is another popular reason many are choosing the vegan lifestyle. Many adolescents, who now have developed their own identity, may choose to become vegan for either ethical or health reasons. Vegan or vegetarian parents may opt to raise their infants vegan, an idea that still remains highly controversial. Opponents may argue that infants on a plant-based diet is too risky and may cause developmental delay (Palmer, 2012). When a vegan diet is properly planned, however, evidence suggests that is not only healthy, but it can be beneficial for infants.
First, plant-based whole foods are naturally rich in nutrients. Those on plant-based diets are likely to receive an adequate amount of dietary fiber, an important nutrient that only comes from plant sources, as well as “magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals” (Palmer, 2012). While the early stages of infancy may be too early in the lifespan to accurately compare the physiology between vegan and omnivorous infants, studies do show that adolescent children on a vegetarian diet are less likely to be overweight and have lower BMI scores on average than their omnivorous and carnivorous counterparts (Palmer, 2012). This suggests that plant-based diets can lead to long-term physical health benefits.
Despite the ample amounts of several nutrients, however, there are few nutrients of which parents should be aware when planning their infant’s diet, most notably zinc, calcium, and especially vitamin B12, a vitamin rich in animal foods but lacking in most plant-based foods (Edgard, 2014). While these latter nutrients may be difficult to find in plant sources, food sources other than animal products for these nutrients do exst. While these nutrients are abundant in animal foods, they are not the sole source of them. Protein, zinc, and calcium have several plant-based sources. Vitamin B-12, while it may be difficult to get in non-fortified plant sources, originally comes from micronutrients in the soil caused by bacteria (Mangels, 2012). Animals then eat foods contaminated with this bacterium, consequently becoming sources of it themselves. It is possible to get vitamin B12 from unfortified sources; nutritional yeast has been shown to be an active source of vitamin B12 as well as numerous types of seaweed and algae such as spirulina and chlorella (Mangels, 2012). While this is not to suggest fortified sources of B12 are not recommended for those on vegan diets, it serves to prove that animals are not the original and sole source of any required nutrient for humans. To make sure infants are receiving the right amounts of the essential nutrients, Sharon Palmer recommends a planned eating routine, which includes breast milk or soy formula for breakfast, which provides a good amount of carbohydrates and protein. For lunch, iron-fortified single grain cereals will satisfy the infant’s iron intake. After 6-8 months, Palmer states that the infant can be introduced to other grains. Breast milk is always ideal, but soy formula too can serve as the infant’s sole source of protein until the infant reaches 7 months when soy products rich in protein such as tofu, as well as legumes, can be introduced (Palmer, 2012).
While vegan diets are often criticized for their insufficiency in protein compared to animal foods, those with high intakes of animal foods may be at risk of consuming too much protein, which can be detrimental to health. Infants who are given above recommended levels of protein often have “slower gain in length-for-age scores from six to twelve months” (Goldbaum, 2014). While protein is essential for human development and building muscle, excess protein will not be metabolized and will convert into fat, resulting in weight gain and may consequently lead to overweight or obesity during later stages in life. Evidence suggests that higher intake of animal foods high in protein cause “faster gain in body mass index scores from age 6 to 12 months…” (Goldbaum, 2014). Thus, if infants are on a properly planned vegan diet, protein consumption becomes highly monitored by parents, resulting in the overconsumption of protein unlikely and reducing chances of overweight and obesity.
If parents choose a plant-based diet for their infants, it is recommended to introduce them to the diet early since infants who have already adapted to animal foods may exhibit neophobia and refuse new foods (Byrne, 2014). Since food is an acquired taste, an infant raised on a plant-based diet is much more likely to enjoy the taste of whole plant foods in subsequent stages of the lifespan and as a result may experience less health problems such as overweight. Dietary habits are established during infancy, which is a “critical period for the development of taste preferences and the establishment of eating habits” (Goldbaum, 2014). Many adults who were raised on a typical Western diet since infancy may tend to exhibit neophobic behavior and find unfamiliar plant-based foods to which they are not accustomed distasteful. Thus, evidence suggests that the food preferences of adults and children are directly determined by the food they consumed during infancy.
The National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity showed that infants had a dependency on unhealthy, Westernized foods; according to the study, a whopping 92% had already consumed “biscuits and cakes” while 79% were already given fried foods such as French fries (Byrne, 2014). Also discovered was that “gram intake of vegetables decreased, while energy-dense snacks increased” (Byrne, 2014). In addition, “18-21% of children aged 2-3 years now classified as overweight or obese” (Byrne, 2014). Since evidence suggests that children on plant-based diets are lean (Palmer, 2014) and have low levels of “triglycerides, glucose levels, blood pressure, and body mass index” (Edgar, 2014), evidence suggests that the epidemic of overweight and obesity is a result of standardized, omnivorous Westernized dietary habits.
Admittedly, Raising an infant vegan is no easy task. The most important element to for parents to remember is that a vegan diet in itself will not guarantee an absence of health problems. Nutritional inadequacies may occur for infants on unhealthy plant-based foods, and there has been one reported case of malnourishment from an improperly planned vegan diet (Palmer, 2012). A plant-based diet may include unhealthy foods such as potato chips, veggie hot dogs, and fast food, which can, like their omnivorous counterparts, result in overweight and obesity (Palmer, 2014). There has been at least one reported case of malnourishment caused from an poorly planned vegan diet (Palmer, 2012). The key is to include mostly whole plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and seeds, with soy formula making an excellent source of fortified protein. Vitamin B12 should come from a fortified source, since a direct non-animal source, while it exists, is rare.