‘Is veganism child abuse?’. This is one of the many headlines to emerge after Florida mum Sarah Anne Markham, 23, was found guilty of child abuse after refusing to feed her dehydrated 12 month old baby boy with the formula prescribed by her pediatrician. Sarah was scared the formula may contain animal by-products and this would go against her vegan beliefs. The Huffington Post, The Daily Mail and countless bloggers have jumped on the band wagon of claiming that this case represented wider concerns in regards to raising children on a ‘restricted’ vegan diet.
‘This controversy is a non-issue’ insists Amanda Baker, senior advocacy officer at The Vegan Society. ‘The public uproar is fuelled by ignorance of good dietetics and poor journalism in the main.’ There are estimated to be around 150,000 vegans living in the UK. This relatively marginalized group advocates a diet that avoids all animal products, that means no meat, no cheese, no eggs, no milk. This can seem gruelingly restrictive however Amanda says that anyone making this claim should ‘do their homework on dietetics and nutrition, as well as the far more numerous cases of child nutrition neglect by non-vegans.’
Now is certainly the time to swat up on the vegan lifestyle. Last year The Independent suggested that 2014 may be the year ‘vegans become mainstream’ and they were right. The opening of the first UK vegan supermarket ‘Veganz’ is due in 2015 and the stream of celebrities professing the benefits of the plant-based diet is growing ever stronger. Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Jennifer Lopez, and Ellen DeGeneres are just a few who have taken it up. Actress Alicia Silverstone has gone even further and spoken openly about raising her two-year-old son on a vegan diet but even her celebrity status hasn’t protected her from harsh media criticism surrounding this decision.
The sad fact is society tends to cast harsh judgments at every stage of parenting. For a parent making an unconventional choice, such as veganism, the opposing viewpoints and advice even from the experts can feel mind-boggling. Jo Travers, a London based nutritionist and dietitian registered with The British Dietetic Association, explains that in her opinion raising a vegan child ‘can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing’. She says that it is possible for older children but ‘shouldn’t be done ever for under twos without consulting a dietitian’. This stance is concerning for the growing number of parents confident in raising their children as vegans from the offset. But Amanda Baker, the Vegan Society, provides assurance that the vegan diet for infants is not a concern ‘the BDA [British Dietetic Association] support well-planned vegan diets for prospective parents, pregnant and breastfeeding women, weaning and infant children, and throughout life.’
So, what exactly it is about the vegan diet that is causing such concern? Jo Travers, explains that the main problem with cutting out all animal products is the lack of Vitamin B12 which almost exclusively provided through animal products. A B12 deficiency can cause serious and irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system as well as fatigue and depression. Again, Amanda Baker provides reassurance that this needn’t be a problem for vegans, who can get their B12 in the form of supplements. She explains ‘Everyone over the age of 50 needs vitamin B12 first-hand in the form of fortified foods and supplements. So this is an issue of our modern hygienic food system – vegans simply follow the standard advice but from day one.’ She goes on to discuss that a diet full of fruit, veg, nuts and grains can be much healthier than that which includes meat and dairy. She believes ‘Non-vegans are chronically lacking in vital nutrients from plants, from folate and vitamin C to dietary fibre’.
It seems that a vegan diet, with due care and attention can be a responsible way to raise children. But even the nutritional data will not silence some critics. The ethical implications of ‘imposing’ the vegan lifestyle on young children have also come under fire. In April 2012 author Ruby Roth was criticised for her book, aimed at young children, ‘Vegan is Love’. The cartoon book covers the issue of animal rights in industries such as clothing, entertainment (i.e. zoos and aquariums), animal testing and diet. Nicole German, a registered dietician, wrote on her blog that the book could ‘scare’ children into becoming vegan and that ‘children are impressionable and this is too sensitive of a topic to have a child read this book’. So is it unethical to ‘impose’ vegan beliefs on young children or should they be free to decide for themselves? Rhys Southan is a US blogger and ex vegan who debunks and discredits certain claims made by vegan advocates in the media. Rhys outlines that the thing that seems to be causing the most sensitivity is that ‘veganism is a belief system that potentially has physical bodily consequences.’ But Rhys recognizes that even this is not unique to veganism, many religions have dietary or physical elements and are not criticized nearly as freely and openly. He notes ‘religions that require circumcision are another obvious example’.
It seems that what parents can take from this controversy is that there is no single set of rules when it comes to doing the best for your child. Those with opposing opinions can cherry pick facts to support any claim. A vegan diet for young children, like any other, must be well planned and it can be a healthy choice for children adults alike. The ethical implications are woolier, should a vegan parent be criticized for imposing their views on their children? As Rhys Southan explains, ‘All parents impose some aspect of their culture and beliefs onto their children’.
This piece has been amended at the request of dietician Jo Travers. Jo’s statement that raising vegan children ‘shouldn’t be done ever for under twos’ has been changed to it ‘shouldn’t be done ever for under twos without consulting a dietitian’.
Many thanks to:
Amanda Baker – The Vegan Society
Rhys Southan- Let Them Eat Meat
Jo Travers- The London Nutritionist