In the 1990s, the word "vegan" was hardly a household term. But Sasha Clark, whose mother was pioneering vegan chef Mimi Clark, was born during that decade, and was entirely meat- and dairy-free.
“People were very skeptical of it,” says Sasha Clark. “They just couldn’t imagine that a person could stay alive.”
A couple of decades later, Clark is still vegan, and thriving.
In 2014, roughly two million children were vegetarians, including 500,000 vegans. But is an alternative diet—such as Paleo, vegan, or raw—safe for kids?
Infancy is a period of rapid growth when diet is especially crucial, since babies require a higher amount of nutrients per pound of body weight than any other time in life. Breastmilk from a vegan mom is considered vegan, and typically, vegan infants breastfeed the same way any other babies do. "I nursed Sasha for the first 2 years of her life," says Mimi Clark. (Mother's milk is also Paleo, since that's just what prehistoric infants consumed.)
But what happens once kids get weaned and introduced to solid foods? Functional Medicine Practitioner and Paleo expert Chris Kresser believes it's not that complicated. "[Kids are] not a different species, though they act like it sometimes," he says. "My daughter follows a Paleo template diet and has for her entire life."
Egg yolks, avocados, and bananas are great nutritious Paleo options for baby’s first solids. Paleo tenets—ditching grains, legumes, sugars, and modern vegetable oils in favor of whole foods like grass-fed organic meat, vegetables, and fruits—can inspire a healthy kids' diet. It aims to eliminate junk food and is easier on the gut for children who still have sensitive immune systems, due to the exclusion of common irritants such as gluten and lectins.
Highly processed carbohydrates in the form of sugar and corn syrup can be physically and mentally addictive, setting up children for poor dietary choices in adulthood. But carbs are still necessary to supply energy for growth, body functions, and activity (just try stopping a tot gearing up to crawl). They also aid in the processing of protein and fats for building and repairing tissue. That doesn’t mean cereal grains are necessarily in order for Paleo parents who are apprehensive about starch. Some starchy foods like sweet potatoes and pumpkin can be good nutritional sources of carbs to consider.
Since excessive meat is not great for adults or children, whose livers can have even more difficulty with a protein level greater than 30 to 40 percent, it's even more vital to get notoriously picky kids to eat their veggies on a Paleo-inspired diet.
Vegan and/or raw eaters would agree. Eating a plant-based diet can increase longevity, and of course there are ethical reasons for opting out of meat, including meat production’s adverse impact on the environment and the issue of inhumane treatment of animals to match.
"Veganism is more of a philosophy and a way of life than a diet," says Mimi Clark. "It's a belief system that revolves around a reverence for life and all sentient beings." She cites the 20-year China Study conducted by Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, which found that people who ate a mostly plant-based diet were less likely to develop chronic diseases than those who ate animal-based foods, as a touchstone for her decision.
But going vegan presents some challenges as well. Essential fatty acids—the best naturally occurring source being fish—are necessary for healthy brain development. Calcium, mainly found in dairy, is crucial for strong, healthy bones. (Fortunately, kale can be a good vegan source of calcium, but kids must be willing to eat a bunch of it.)
Going a step further—into raw territory—is even more sensitive, since children’s developing digestive systems may have a tough time absorbing nutrients from raw foods. Healthy sources of protein such as legumes, lentils, chickpeas, and red beans must be cooked for proper digestion and nutrient absorption.
Along with bioavailability issues of raw foods, high fiber foods may prevent kids from eating enough before getting full—these two factors could potentially lead to malnourishment. That word is a huge trigger for those who condemn the idea that children can get proper nutrition as vegans or raw vegans.
Whatever the diet, it’s possible that parents who are obsessive about food restrictions could be passing on lifelong issues with food to their children. “Your main goal as a parent is to educate your kids to a wide array of foods so they’re open to lots of flavors,” says Laura Kraber, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who works with Dr. Frank Lipman.
The verdict? When extremely mindful of children’s individual nutritional needs, and with the help of a good pediatrician or pediatric nutritionist or dietitian, some alternative diets can be totally okay for some kids. Humans—kids included—are very adaptable.
Ultimately, parents have the right to make the call on the healthiest diet possible for their kids. But at some point, it is important to give kids a choice. An Italian toddler put it simply when he declined to eat octopus gnocchi on the grounds that “Octopus are animals...When we eat animals they die...I don’t like that they die! These animals...you gotta take care of them...and not eat them!”Just try to reason against that. Sometimes kid logic is pretty solid.
Photo credit: Nick Olejniczak via Flickr