SINGAPORE, March 5 — Mention “veganism” and many think of adults who abstain from eating or using animals and animal products. Famous vegan celebrities then come to mind, such as Jennifer Lopez, Ellen DeGeneres and Joaquin Phoenix (who was raised vegan by his eco-conscious parents).
Actress Alicia Silverstone has been very vocal about bringing up her five-year-old son, Bear, on a vegan diet. She has written a vegan cookbook, The Kind Diet, and runs its associated website.
The move into clean eating and conscious living is growing in Singapore, and some parents are choosing to raise their children as vegans.
Homemaker Roopinder Parmar, 39, has three children, aged 7 to 17, and her entire family has been vegan for four years now. She was motivated to cut out meat and dairy after watching a video which addressed animal cruelty on dairy farms.
“Within three months on the diet, I could feel the difference in my health,” she said. “I lost weight and my energy levels shot up. My husband’s high cholesterol dropped to normal levels. However, the greatest improvement was in my son’s health. He had sinus issues and an ENT surgeon even advised surgery to remove his turbinates for better and easier breathing. Upon going vegan, his breathing improved tremendously and he was able to stop using steroid medications.”
Vegan since birth
Nina Devouge, 32, a relationship manager, became vegan while she was pregnant with her son, Hugo, who is now 10 months old and follows a vegan and gluten-free diet.
“I was not keen on putting inferior meats in his body. Most of the meat and fish available are injected with hormones and antibiotics, some even with colour to boost ‘pink of health’ and are not in the natural form they should be,” she explained.
“We do give him supplements like flaxseed oil for his omegas and sodium ascorbate with Vitamin C to help him boost his immune system, as well as probiotics.”
A typical day for Hugo goes like this: freshly-pressed green juice and cereal with a fruit in the morning; steamed broccoli and carrots and a potato leek and celery puree for lunch; and steamed sweet potato and cauliflower and a parsnip and beetroot puree for dinner. Devouge does, however, feed him milk.
“Having gone back to work, I found my own milk supply dropping,” she said.
“Since I couldn’t find a good supply of breastmilk, I decided for now to go for the next best alternative which is goat’s milk, instead of cow’s milk. Whilst we would have liked (for him) to be a hundred per cent vegan, we recognise that this is what he needs a bit of right now.”
The experts’ view
So, what do the experts think of children who follow vegan diets? Jaclyn Reutens, dietician, Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants, warned that parents need to be aware that a child following a vegan diet is at high risk of several nutrient deficiencies.
“If they still wish to persist with the diet, they need to be very well-informed on how to prevent these deficiencies which will impair growth and development in their child,” she said.
Nutrients that vegan children could be missing out on include vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc, protein, calcium and iron.
“It’s possible to replace these nutrients with iron, calcium, vitamin D and B12 supplements for a quick boost,” she continued.
“However, with protein, they would have to rely on protein from plant sources (tofu, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, soya bean products), which are not as bioavailable to the body as animal sources are.”
Bibi Chia, principal dietitian at Raffles Hospital’s Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre, suggested that, if done correctly and supplemented in the proper way, a vegan diet is fine for children.
“A child can follow a vegan diet at any age as long as it is well planned, with all the essential nutrients. The child should be eating sufficient calories and certain nutrients such as protein, zinc, iron, calcium, Vitamin B12. Breastfeeding is recommended for at least six months and lactating mothers should ensure sufficient nutrient intake while breastfeeding,” said Chia.
The case for gluten
Both Chia and Reutens agreed that there’s no need for children to follow a gluten-free diet, unless the child has been diagnosed to have coeliac disease, gluten intolerance or sensitivity by a doctor.
“Parents should not self-diagnose and put their child unnecessarily on a gluten-free diet. It will stunt their growth and development,” said Reutens.
“Gluten is found in many nutritious foods such as wholegrains, wholemeal, rye, barley and some oat products. Cutting out these foods actually puts you at risk of several nutrient deficiencies such as dietary fibre, zinc, selenium, magnesium and the B vitamins.”
She also revealed that such diets could affect energy levels as “these diets revolve mainly around fruits and vegetables and less around carbohydrates and protein which are two main energy contributors”.
She added: “Vegan and gluten-free diets tend to be lower in fat which means the overall calorie intake tends to be low and energy levels will also be lowered.”
Chia said that, if their meals are carefully planned, “vegan or gluten-free kids should perform like any other child”.
Parmar’s daughter, Shreya, 17, has been enjoying being a vegan, with no regrets whatsoever.
“Going vegan was a life-defining moment. It’s not only a diet, it’s a lifestyle and I feel proud to call myself a vegan,” said Parmar. “I do get a lot of questions about it. However, I receive more praise commending me for all I’m trying to do. When we can get mouth-watering flavour and bang-on nutrition from this lifestyle, why shouldn’t we adopt it?” — TODAY