Bill Clinton and Mike Tyson have joined the ranks of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi in adopting a vegan diet, clearly signaling the popularity of the diet among adults. What I've been hearing as I travel around the country, though, is that more and more kids are adopting a vegan way of eating, and some parents who are unfamiliar with it are curious about this new trend, especially since it's so different from what they grew up with. So how should you react when your child announces one day, "Mom/Dad, that's it -- no more meat, dairy, or eggs for me!"?
First of all, be really happy. Children today are in the worst physical shape of any generation in history. One in three is overweight. One in five has an abnormal cholesterol level while still in high school. One in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A child who has decided to go vegetarian -- or, better still, vegan -- gains a measure of protection against all of these problems. And isn't it a great thing that your child cares and is concerned about where his or her food comes from? Good job! Developing and acting on empathy is surely a good thing for everyone.
The American Dietetic Association, which reviewed all of the science on vegan and vegetarian diets, says that they are better for our children than diets that contain meat, dairy, and eggs. In the ADA's position paper on plant-based diets, they write, "Vegetarian diets in childhood and adolescence can aid in the establishment of lifelong healthful eating patterns and can offer some important nutritional advantages." As just one example, researchers studied a group of 1,765 children and adolescents in Southern California, and vegetarians were, on average, about an inch taller than their meat-eating friends.
That makes sense: Look at the many athletes who are now going vegan because it improves their endurance and performance: Mac Danzig, the Ultimate Fighting Championship winner, ultra-marathoner Rich Roll, tri-athlete Brendan Brazier, "Olympian of the Century" Carl Lewis, and football star Ricky Williams are but a few who nod to their diet as a big contribution to their success.
So as more and more of our kids adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet, we would be wise to join them. The American Dietetic Association explains: "Vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have lower body mass index (BMI) and lower overall cancer rates."
And vegan food is very easy to work into your routine: You just find the meals that work for the family and can go into your weekly rotation. Some very simple options include bean burritos, baked beans and veggie sausage, lentil soup, whole grain breads, pizza made with Daiya (cheese made from tapioca) or any other kind of non-dairy cheese, vegetable soups and salads, oatmeal, rice, quinoa (a complete protein grain), and non-dairy milks like rice, almond, oat, or soy. You might also want to check out some meat substitutes like veggie burgers and dogs, etc. Every mainstream grocery store now stocks Morningstar and Boca products, both of which are great transition foods for the new vegan. Best of all, they are well liked by most kids.
Are you one of those parents (close to 100 percent, in my experience) who worries about your child's eating habits? According to Dr. Neal Barnard, faculty member of George Washington University School of Medicine and President of the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine:
Vegan children have better nutrition than other kids. This is in part because they are skipping the cholesterol and animal fat, and in part because as they search for new foods to eat (to replace the meat), they often discover and start eating healthy foods. While all kids are supposed to eat their veggies, according to the ADA, vegan and vegetarian kids actually do!
Here are two simple rules that ensure good nutrition:
Each day, have foods from the four healthful food groups: whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), vegetables, and fruits.
Include a reliable source of vitamin B12, such as any common multiple vitamin or fortified foods.
Let's consider a few key nutrients that are critical for growing children. Here's what Dr. Barnard says:
Protein: There is ample protein in grains, vegetables, beans, and bean products (including tofu and soymilk). If your child consumes a normal variety of these foods over the course of a day, she will receive all the protein she needs.
Calcium: Green leafy vegetables and legumes -- or "greens and beans," for short--are rich in calcium. This is particularly true for broccoli, collards, kale, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts. Less valuable for calcium is spinach, because the calcium in spinach is poorly absorbed. You'll also find plenty of calcium in fortified foods, such as fortified orange juice and most soy milks. And don't fight over vegetables your child doesn't like. Just serve the ones that do go over well. Tastes broaden as the years go by.
Iron: Greens and beans come to our rescue again. They are rich in iron. And vitamin-C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits, tend to enhance the absorption of iron consumed in the same meal. If you are concerned, a daily vitamin-mineral supplement will have you covered easily.
Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy blood and healthy nerves. It is not found in unfortified plant foods, although it is present in dairy products and eggs, which you may or may not be serving. But vitamin B12 is easy to find in many fortified breakfast cereals, fortified soymilk, and in all common multiple vitamins. I recommend that everyone -- vegetarian or not -- take a multiple vitamin or other convenient source of vitamin B12 every day. Studies show that meat-eaters often run low due to poor absorption.
Dr. Barnard goes on to say:
"If you are interested in trying soy-based meat substitutes, they may have health benefits. Girls who consume soymilk, tofu, or similar products on a daily basis during adolescence have significantly less risk of breast cancer in adulthood, compared to people who avoid soy. That said, soy products are not essential. There is plenty of good nutrition in the other beans, as well as in the broad range of vegetables, fruits, and grains."
So how do you do it? Some of my friends "lean into it" as a family by starting off with Meatless Mondays and then progress to eating less and less meat, all the while getting more comfortable with adjusted menus. If your child wants to stick to a vegan diet while everyone else is catching up, you could serve him or her black bean burritos while the family has the regular with meat. You can use veggie meatballs (found in your grocer's freezer section) in pasta instead of beef. And while everyone else is eating chicken with mashed potatoes, your child can enjoy Gardein chik'n (a plant-based high protein meat substitute that looks and tastes very much like chicken) and mashed potatoes made with non-dairy milk and Earth Balance non-dairy butter.
A stir fry with tofu, rice, and veggies is super fast and tasty for everyone, as is a hearty chili with beans and veggie protein crumbles (again, found in your grocer's freezer). It's really quite easy to "veganize" your favorite family traditions. Good snacks are bagels with peanut or almond butter, whole grain pretzels, or apples and bananas. And a great way to sneak in a veggie for your child is to make a smoothie with juice or non-dairy milk, blueberries and banana; then throw in a handful of frozen broccoli. You can't taste the broccoli (I promise!) and because of the blueberries, your kids won't see green!