Vegan Health ArticlesCan Children Be Vegan and Vegetarian?
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Even pediatricians seem to be on board with raising children vegan or vegetarian.

Just ask Susan, who has had an array of veg-friendly pediatricians caring for her daughter, "We never looked for a specifically vegan-friendly doctor, but from day one, every doctor we have been to has been supportive." Susan explained.

While some parents and pediatricians believe a vegan or vegetarian diet is unhealthy for children, studies and real-life experiences suggest quite the opposite.

According to the American Dietetic Association, "Well-planned vegetarian diets even a vegan diet can supply all the nutrients that children require for their growth and energy needs." In fact, it is the official position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada also recognized that "Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."

Additionally, according to Sue Gilbert, M.S., Nutritionist, "Kids are almost natural vegetarians" she explains. "Many have a hard time chewing tough things, which often eliminates meat, and they love animals. Once they make the connection between the hamburger and the cow, many pass on the meat."

Just ask Elena, a thriving 12-year-old who has been a vegan since birth, "Even though I sometimes get teased by my friends, I like being a vegan because animals are not being hurt because of me." Elena also went on to say, "Plus, meat looks yucky, especially the chicken in the school cafeteria which sometimes has blood in it." Elena's favorite foods are her mom's recipes for vegan lasagna, mac n' cheese, scrambled tofu and cherry-chocolate mousse pie.

Nick, who is now 19, went veg in 2005 when he started working at Sonic as a burger flipper, "I originally made the switch to a vegetarian diet for health reasons, then I met other vegetarians and realized that the animals can benefit, too. Soon after, I switched to a vegan diet." Nick's father was and is still not supportive of Nick's lifestyle, though Nick's mother was and is now a vegetarian herself. "I am really proud of my mom for going vegetarian!" he says. As for life as a vegan teen, Nick has only had positive experiences, "I never really made a big deal about my diet to others, unless I was asked. I simply packed a lunch and would eat it while the other kids ate their food. Of course, over time people began to wonder what I was eating so I would let them know and they were always interested. They were excited to see what I'd bring, actually." Nick continued, "I'm very happy about my switch to a vegan diet and my mom is too!" Nick was also the runner-up for 2009's Cutest Vegetarian Alive Award.

Janessa, now a vegan, was raised as a vegetarian since birth along with her older brother and remembers peer pressure and her choice to remain vegetarian fondly, "When I was in 1st grade and my brother in 4th, my mother flew us out to visit my grandpa. My 6 foot tall, southern accent, meat eating grandpa. He strongly disapproved of the two of us not eating meat and said, "I'll give you anything you want. Anything. Just take a bite of this hot dog." Janessa, then 6-years-old dared to ask, "Anything? Even... a Barbie Dream house?" Still Janessa and her brother did not take a bite, even when allowed to make their own decisions. "My mom raised us healthy and with the power of choice" Janessa explained. "I could have chosen, at any time, to eat a chicken nugget in the school cafeteria. I could have chosen to have a whopper at Burger King rather than wait until I got home for a sprout and tofu sandwich. But I did not want to."

As Janessa pointed out with her sprout and tofu sandwiches, vegetarians and vegans tend to enjoy diets that are high in fiber but low in cholesterol and saturated fats -- all the makings of a healthy diet. Morever, most vegans and vegetarians eat an abundance of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. Non-vegetarians, on the other hand, generally eat diets high in animal products such as milk, eggs and dairy products and processed foods. Most children also do not meet the current recommendations for most plant foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, despite the fact plant foods are highlighted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In fact, the most common vegetable eaten by Americans is the potato, usually in the form of a French fry or potato chip. Looking at these two diets side-by-side, it is clear that a balanced vegan or vegetarian diet rich in whole foods is the healthier choice.

Studies have also shown that vegans and vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index than meat eaters and are at a lower risk for obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. In the last three decades, the number of obese children and teens in America has more than tripled and obesity has become an overall American epidemic. According to findings in the July 18 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 25.6% of adults reported being obese in 2007 compared to 23.9% in 2005. "The epidemic of adult obesity continues to rise in the United States, indicating that we need to step up our efforts at the national, state and local levels," Dr. William Dietz, director of CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, said in a news release. "We need to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables [and] engage in more physical activity."

Statistics from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention also show that the prevalence of overweight children is steadily increasing. Data from two NHANES surveys (19761980 and 20032004) revealed for children aged 25 years, prevalence increased from 5.0% to 13.9%; for those aged 611 years, prevalence increased from 6.5% to 18.8%; and for those aged 1219 years, prevalence increased from 5.0% to 17.4%. The Journal of American Medicine also reported that rates of overweight and obesity remain high with 31.9% of children and adolescents aged 2 through 19 years at or above the 85th percentile of the 2000 BMI-for-age growth charts. Weight-related diseases such as type II diabetes are also at an all-time high among children and teenagers.

Looking at these facts it is hard to deny that a vegetarian or vegan diet is the healthier choice for children and teens, especially when those diets can help end the epidemic and prevent children and adults from becoming obese or developing type II diabetes. According to a cohort study reported in the May issue of Diabetes Care and supported by the National Institutes of Health and the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University, which compared the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in vegetarian and non-vegetarians, "vegan and vegetarian diets may protect against obesity and type 2 diabetes" explained co-author Serena Tonstad, MD, PhD. "The protective effects of vegetarianism against overweight may be due to avoidance of major food groups, displacement of calories toward food groups that are more satiating, or other factors... Investigators have suggested that the portfolio of foods found in vegetarian diets may carry metabolic advantages for the prevention of type 2 diabetes." The study showed that vegans had the lowest BMI (23.6 kg/m2) and there was a progressive increase in BMI with increased content of animal products in the diet: 25.7 kg/m2 in lacto-ovo vegetarians, 26.3 kg/m2 in pesco-vegetarians, 27.3 kg/m2 in semi-vegetarians, and 28.8 kg/m2 in non-vegetarians. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes also increased with increasing consumption of animal products: 2.9% for the vegan diet, 3.2% for the lacto-ovo diet, 4.8% for the pesco-vegetarian diet, 6.1% for the semi-vegetarian diet, and 7.6% for the non-vegetarian diet.

Still, there are other healthy benefits, aside from a lower risk for obesity and type II diabetes for vegan and vegetarian children.

Just ask Meredyth whose 3 1/2-year old daughter, Emma, has never been sick, "As far as her health goes, Emma has never been sick. When she does get a runny nose, it lasts a day and it's gone. She once had a stomach flu, but it lasted a day. It took me much longer to recover from the same flu." Emma has been a vegetarian since birth but mostly eats a vegan diet, with the exception of the occasional piece of organic cheese at home. "Truth be told, I think Emma would be a happy camper on a Raw or high Raw diet since most of her favorite foods are fruits, veggies, and dried fruits." Meredyth admits.

Susan, Elena's mother, has enjoyed a similar experience, "Elena was raised vegan and has always been the healthiest kid in her school. I can count the number of colds she's had on one hand--make that three fingers. She even managed to make it through the 3rd grade without ever missing a day of school." Elena's picture of perfect health has also impressed her doctors. "When Elena was three and had her blood drawn for those "well-visit" tests, all the doctors in the practice came into the examining room to see the child with such a low cholesterol level. When I told them that it was because she'd never eaten meat or dairy, several of the doctors said that they needed to eat that way themselves." Susan explained.

Kate, who has been raising both of her sons vegan since birth, say her kids are "Healthy as oxes. My pediatrician, who is not vegan or vegetarian, sees how my boys are thriving, and says that we are doing everything right with their diet."

Likewise Janessa, commenting on her health as a child vegetarian and now as a vegan adult said, "I was brought up with a diet of whole foods, local ingredients, and a bright fresh garden. I was always a healthy kid. To this day I don't get sick nearly as often as my peers."

Nick has also experienced improved health since going vegan, "I never get sick anymore. I have only been sick once since I made the switch four years ago and it went away in less than 48 hours."

Still more benefits such as energy, happiness, improved attention span and proper digestion are noticed by parents of vegan and vegetarian children.

Just ask Carrie who has noticed positive attributes in her children due to their vegetarian diet that is mostly vegan, except for the occasional piece of birthday cake or cheese pizza at birthday parties, "I have noticed that my children appear nourished and energized by their food. After a meal they will be ready to go outside and play. I notice that with a lot of other children, their meals seem to zap their energy levels." Carrie's oldest, Mairin, now 6, has also grabbed the attention of her teachers. "Teachers have also commented on Mairin's behavior after lunch, compared to that of her classmates. They have told me that Mairin comes back from lunch full of life and ready to learn while her peers often come back lethargic and cranky." Carrie explained. "My husband and I have also heard from different teachers that notice a difference in Mairin's appearance, that her eyes seem to sparkle after she's returned from lunch." Still Carrie has noticed other positive differences in her children compared to their peers. "One thing that annoys me is that people often assume that vegetarian children are sickly and unhealthy. My children are anything but. They are both very slender, but very strong, and are very rarely ill. When they do become ill they recover much quicker than their peers."

Kate describes her boys as "HUGE, playful, energetic, smart and full of life." Kate explains, "Will, 3-years-old, and Rory, 20 months, have been in the 90-100% percentile for height and weight since about three months old. Neither boy is fat, they are just big and healthy and bursting with energy. They both love books, trucks and being outside playing t-ball, soccer or on the playground. They have an amazing amount of stamina. I have taken to training for triathlons just to keep in condition to keep up with them!"

Similarly, Kristie, who switched her youngest child to a vegan diet at 18 months, debunks the myth that vegan children are unhealthy. "I did not notice any changes in Jackson at first" she said, "Except for his excellent pooping skills. Yes, I said pooping skills!" Kristie then went on to say, "Jackson continued to grow and develop just as he always had. It's been a little over a year since our diet change and he's tracking along in his growth rate at the same rate he was before he was a vegan." Kristie continued, "Jackson is also an amazing talker at 2 1/2-years-old. He's full of energy and he rarely gets sick. When he does, he's quick to heal." She said. "I think Jackson is the poster child for a healthy vegan toddler. He proves that he can survive and thrive without eating "foods" that used to have a face. He proves that a growing, changing toddler can continue to develop and advance just as his counterparts. Jackson's in excellent health and will continue to be so because he's being fueled by foods that are meant to foster excellent health."

Even pediatricians seem to be on board with raising children vegan or vegetarian.

Just ask Susan, who has had an array of veg-friendly pediatricians caring for her daughter, "We never looked for a specifically vegan-friendly doctor, but from day one, every doctor we have been to has been supportive." Susan explained.

Meredyth also has a supportive pediatrician, "My daughter's pediatrician is very supportive of our diet," she said. "When I first mentioned it, I was pretty nervous. I was expecting the pediatrician to tell me how important meat, eggs and dairy are for a growing child. As it turned out, the pediatrician herself is vegetarian, formerly vegan and wants to be vegan again."

Kate, however, sought out a veg-friendly pediatrician, "I knew I wanted to raise my sons vegan since I strongly believe it is the healthiest lifestyle available. Before I had my children, I chose a pediatrician that was supportive of my choice to raise my children vegan. I have worked closely with our pediatrician to make sure that my boys are in the best health they could be. They have their blood iron levels checked along with their regular yearly exams, and the levels are always perfect."

However, all diets need special attention and care to ensure a child is getting everything he or she needs. When children are vegan or vegetarian, parents should ensure their children are getting enough calcium, iron, protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and zinc. A daily multivitamin is a great way to supplement these needs and many foods, such as soy milk, orange juice and nutritional yeast are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and B12. A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is another way to ensure optimum nutrition. For example, Meredyth gives her daughter a vegan multivitamin regularly along with smoothies with flax seeds, larabars and raw walnuts to ensure Emma gets her omega-3's. She also feeds Emma coconut based vegan yogurts for the probiotics and healthy fats. Likewise, Kate makes sure to give her boys a multivitamin with plenty of B-12 in it. She also feeds them a varied diet with plenty of greens and raisins to get natural sources of iron.

Even children who are not vegan or vegetarian may still benefit from regularly eating healthy, delicious vegetarian foods.

Just ask Tara, a vegetarian mother of two whose kids are not vegetarian. "My husband is not a vegetarian and our boys are not a vegetarian, yet." She says. Still, Tara's boys eat many vegetarian and vegan meals. "They love vegetarian corn dogs, vegan brownies, vegan chocolate muffins, vegan chocolate-zucchini muffins, vegan blueberry breakfast cake, vegan alfredo, tofu fish sticks and more recipes I'm forgetting!" Tara also thinks her youngest, Ethan, may be a natural vegetarian, "Ethan LOVES veggies and beans. It's so nice to share all of Mommy's foods with at least one member of our household." she said.

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We began this archive as a means of assisting our visitors in answering many of their health and diet questions, and in encouraging them to take a pro-active part in their own health. We believe the articles and information contained herein are true, but are not presenting them as advice. We, personally, have found that a whole food vegan diet has helped our own health, and simply wish to share with others the things we have found. Each of us must make our own decisions, for it's our own body. If you have a health problem, see your own physician.