Raising Vegan Kids: Is The Diet Nutritious Enough?

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Clintonville's Pattycake Bakery co-owner Jennie Scheinbach said the number of vegan birthday cakes is on an upward trend because non-vegans purchase them, as well.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
Clintonville's Pattycake Bakery co-owner Jennie Scheinbach said the number of vegan birthday cakes is on an upward trend because non-vegans purchase them, as well.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

By now, most people have heard of the vegan diet. It’s similar to vegetarian, but it excludes all animal-derived products, including dairy and eggs. As more people adopt the vegan diet, more parents are choosing to make it a family affair.

Plant-based diets for babies and toddlers.

This phrase may startle or disconcert some people. After all, it’s not necessarily considered a traditional American diet. But if you google it, you’re certain to find more information on vegan diets for kids than you imagined.

Columbus mom, Joanna Thomas and her two children are vegans. Thomas has been eating only plant-based foods for 25 years. So when she got pregnant in the late-90s, sticking to a vegan diet was an instinctive choice.

“I was very, very confident in the healthfulness of my vegan diet. I had no concerns at all about having a vegan pregnancy and felt sure that what I was eating was good,” she said.

Thomas’ children, now 12 and 15, have never eaten any animal products.

No milk. No meat. No eggs. Not even refined sugar.

Since the time they were babies they’ve been on a plant-based diet.

“I would never let them be picky about eating. If they complained they didn’t like something I would just say, ‘I will only serve you a ‘no, thank you’ bite.’ And I would give them a little taste. They always had to have a little taste of something even if they didn’t like it.”

While the vegan diet has grown in popularity in the past decade, surveys suggest fewer than 3 percent of Americans follow it. Some people choose it for animal rights and environmental reasons, while others have adopted it for health benefits.

Infants are natural vegans. Doctors have long promoted mother’s milk or formula, grains and fruits and vegetables as babies’ first foods. It isn’t until much later meat and cow’s milk are introduced.

Still, there are concerns whether the diet provides enough nutrition or if it’s OK for pregnant moms and growing children.

Jennifer Curtiss answers “yes” and “yes.” Curtiss is a registered dietician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. But she cautions eliminating animal products from a person’s diet takes careful planning to ensure all dietary needs are met.

“So you shouldn’t wake up one day and decide this is the plan that you’re going to have for your family. You really need to do your homework.”

“If this is the lifestyle that you choose for you and your family, and you’re educated and you do your research and you plan well-balanced meals, this diet can be safe and it can have long-lasting health benefits to the family.”

Curtiss notes protein, calcium and vitamin D are some of the key nutrients growing children need, and kids get a sizeable amount of this this from cow’s milk. But she says there are other sources, “that we wouldn’t necessarily think of like kale, broccoli, almonds and some dried beans also can provide some calcium.”

In addition to the significant meal planning, raising vegan children can draw criticism and create social challenges.

It took a couple of tries before Thomas found a physician who didn’t condemn her family’s choices. And her daughter has taken some teasing at school about the contents of her lunch sack. Then there are all the birthday parties and holiday dinners.

“I really learned how to cook very, very tasty treats for my kids so that they would never feel like they were missing out on anything,” Thomas said.

“That was really, really important to me that they never felt like they were missing out. And so if we were going somewhere where I knew the other children had treats I’d always pack something for them.”

Jennie Scheinbach knows a thing or two about creating tasty vegan treats. She opened Pattycake Bakery, a vegan option in Clintonville, about ten years ago.

“We do a lot of kids’ birthday cakes. There is a vegan community who are getting birthday cakes from us are vegans. There’s also an allergy component. And then there’s the people who are just really concerned with natural foods,” Scheinbach said.

Scheinbach is vegan, and her children, ages 15, 10 and 7, are vegetarian. She said raising vegetarian kids in Clintonville is easier, as the lifestyle is more understood and accepted. But it can get confusing for children.

“I can remember our daughter going to our neighbor’s house and asking for a glass of water without meat in it because she was so hyper-conscious of, like, these people eat meat. There could be meat in anything,” Scheinbach laughed. ‘No, water is safe.’”

Scheinbach said her children will be able to choose whether to remain vegetarians. And Joanna Thomas also has encouraged her children to decide for themselves whether to keep the vegan lifestyle. About a year ago, her son began to include refined sugar into his diet.

“You know, he’s out with his friends and he wants to have a soda and kind of be like them. So, you know, I wasn’t happy about it, but it was his choice. I’d always told him eventually it’s your choice, you need to decide, it’s your body, it’s your life,” Thomas said.

  • Leslie

    Thank you so much for this story! I too, am raising my children to eat a whole-foods plant-based diet here in Columbus! This was a very positive story. It is important to note that there are also unhealthy ways to be vegan so eating plants without added oils and sugar, is ideal! Thanks again.

    • VeganMom

      good for you!! :)

  • Andrea

    I do appreciate an article that treats veganism in a positive way. But Ms Curtiss says:If this is the lifestyle that you choose for you and your family, and you’re educated and you do your research and you plan well-balanced meals, this diet can be safe and it can have long-lasting health benefits to the family.

    I wonder if she gives the same advice to parents who feed their children cholesterol, pesticide, fat and hormore-filled animal products. I, and my never-sick children are vegan for ethical reasons, but the health benefits are so overwhelming in so many ways, like heart disease and diabetes prevention, organ function, and on and on. It’s just such a positive choice, I encourage people to learn more.

  • Ann Stone

    Proud parent of a beautiful, brilliant, healthy vegan son, right here!

  • Kayla

    parenting done right

  • Frasier Linde

    Infants are NOT natural vegans… just because it’s the mother’s doesn’t mean breast milk is somehow not an animal product!

    • Michelle

      Breast milk is vegan. It’s designed for a human and doesn’t come from an animal.

      • Frasier Linde

        Humans ARE animals.

        • michael

          Would you say a cow is a natural Herbivore? Your just being a stubborn idiot for the sake of it. Yes Humans are animals breast can be claimed as vegan or not its besides the point of this article. Breast milk is best and its produced for your baby just like every other animal. Veganism is an ethical and healthy choice for humans and “in my opinion” the natural choice. Do be a stupid ass for the sake of making a backward thinking point that’s not only idiotic. Please explain or enlighten others as to what other animal on the whole earth (apart from some humans) drink or consume dairy after infantry? By your backwards logic cows are not vegan nor designed to be vegan either.

          • Frasier Linde

            From a nutritional standpoint (which is the topic of this article), I think we can all agree that a mother’s milk is the best thing for an infant—no purely plant-based food can provide the same level of nourishment. Quality animal foods can be nourishing later in life for many of the same reasons a mother’s milk is during early development, and I think it’s “backward thinking” to say, in a nutritional context, that infants are born vegan because the animal product they start out on is from their mother and not another species. Cows have no concept of veganism—they simply eat what their instincts tell them to. The same was true for humans, until society gave us the luxury (and burden) of choice. I’m not arguing against anyone’s decision to be vegan for ethical or other reasons, but from a purely nutritional/biological standpoint, the science is clear that, while cows have bodies suited to an herbivorous diet after they’re weaned, our bodies are built to thrive on both plant and animal foods (not necessarily dairy), and a well-executed omnivorous diet is generally the easiest path to optimal health. Please keep your comments civil, and remember that personal attacks don’t make you look like the smart one in any conversation.

          • VeganMom

            cows don’t eat what there instincts tell them… they eat what is given to them to survice, this is usually grain/corn from the farmer because that is cheaper than giving them their natural food which is grass.

            our bodies are not built to “thrive” on animal foods. our bodies are designed to adapt to what is available to survive. stop eating meat, and guess what you won’t die. our bodies do not need meat/dairy and it is much healthier if you don’t supply it with the agents that clog your arteries and cause allergies.

            an omnivorious diet is not the easiest path to optimal health, that is only your opinion.

            I dare you to go completely vegan (healthy vegan, not oreos, soda and chips) for one week and see how you feel, then when you start eating meat again you will see the real effects it has on your body. you WILL see a difference. don’t knock it until you try it.

          • Frasier Linde

            Cows left to their own devices eat grass, as you acknowledge—If you give a cow meat, will it chow down? No. What makes you think that’s not instinctual?

            Yes, our bodies are remarkably adaptable. That is why people can get by to varying extents on all types of diets. Look into the latest research on how our species developed, though, and you will find that adapting to eat animals (especially seafood) is what allowed us to develop the brain power to even be able to consider veganism. Look into the research on atherosclerosis, and you’ll find that animal fats were wrongly vilified from the beginning. Science is finally figuring out the mechanisms behind these diseases, and guess what? Animal foods are not to blame. The real culprits are sugar, gluten, processed foods, hydrogenated “vegetable” oils, and so on.

            My opinion that an omnivorous diet is the easiest path to optimal health is based on an in-depth survey of the most up-to-date research on nutrition, which boils down to the simple fact that an omnivore eating quality whole foods can effortlessly meet all of their nutritional needs, whereas a vegan diet requires careful planning to get the required amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, usually resorting to foods like grains and legumes that are known to have negative health effects, and requiring expensive supplements. Please tell us what supports your opinion to the contrary.

            Personally, digestive problems mean that I can’t tolerate much plant matter at the moment, so going vegan for a week is absolutely out of the question. I, and many others struggling with digestive and related health issues, rely on nutrient-dense, easily digested animal foods like bone broth and egg yolks to nourish my body and allow it to heal. I would dare you to try a high-quality omnivorous diet (e.g. The Perfect Health Diet or The Bulletproof Diet) for a week and see how you feel, but I’m guessing health is not the primary reason you don’t eat animal products.

      • independent_forever

        No, it’s from an animal…we are animals or do you pick and choose when that is so to win your argument? BTW, animals in the wild DO feed on each other in case you have forgotten so to believe all life should eat plant-based is ridiculous. It’s your choice but don’t make statements that are wholly inaccurate and expect to convince others.

        Definition of animal from the dictionary: a living organism that feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.

    • independent_forever

      Funny…I read that too and was thinking the same thing….what do they think mother’s milk is from…an animal…human being right ;-)

  • Tracey Dunn Williamson

    These kinds of articles are always interesting….it is a regular diet that is unhealthy, meat and dairy are the main causes of hardening of the arteries and a host of other ills. They always like a microscope on vegans because it threatens big ag, the huge cruel industry that wants to hide what it is doing. The drugs, hormones and pus in milk alone should make anyone gag. Not to even mention the brutal death of the calves so people can have cheese.Every vegan I see is way more healthy than the meat and dairy eating counterparts, and our food is much more peaceful to our minds. Get your aminos and stay away from processed vegan foods and you are on the way to a better life and health.

  • Keely Evilpea

    Proud vegan baby, now toddler…he’s relaxed and chilled out compared to all the hormone fuelled kids in the nursery. People fill their kids full of sugar and wonder why they can’t sit still.???

    • independent_forever

      Huge generalization and is why vegans get a bad rap….kids can’t sit still because THEY ARE KIDS!! Can’t blame everything on diets.

  • ianveganoption

    If this sparked your curiosity, you might also be interested in this show featuring interviews with three adults looking back on their very different vegan childhoods.

  • T-Time

    Vegan is an added level of discipline that I have yet to adopt. I imagine a Utopian society where animals hand over some eggs and milk happily due to excess. Then we all gather around and sing Kumbaya.
    A memorable scene from Pulp Fiction, the last vignette:where in the diner Jules tells Vincent “a dog has personality”. Vincent replies “if a pig had a better personality it would cease to be a filthy animal”; this was in the context of Vincent’s disclosure of not eating pork due to its predilection of not disregarding its own feces.
    Perhaps if we treated our livestock better they would become more likeable beings.
    This is tongue in check, but thought provoking.

  • independent_forever

    To each his own. But one vegan argument that has always annoyed the cr@p out of me is when they say things like “we are the only animal on this planet that takes the milk from another species and continues using it into adulthood”. People who make that argument lose me forever because they equate us to non-thinking, only instinctual lower level animals who are on the same level as those living in the wild. I always tell them…look at us…do we even come close to being suited for life in the wild…NOT EVEN CLOSE which is why God gave us a brain. And our teeth are clearly meant for tearing meat–we aren’t cows chewing grass. So as for the milk comment…we use it because we can and have figured out how to benefit from it. They can argue the animal rights issues all they want but I would argue they have to rip down trees and bulldoze wide spaces in order to truly provide plant-based diets (i.e. grow all the stuff we would eat) PLUS use some degree of chemicals to prevent diseases and insect damage so there’s a price for everything we, as humans, do. But to say animal-based protein is bad and all plant-based diets are good is wrong-headed too. Forget science…just look around. MILLIONS of MEAT-EATING human beings have lived long, healthy lives and continue to do so and that’s proof enough for me. Anything in excess is bad…no matter what it is in life and moderation is the key. I do believe removing animal-based proteins DOES cause vegans to miss out on some benefits but they cannot be convinced. Most Vegans I’ve met are so religious about it they refuse to listen to other arguments and, frankly, life is too short to bother. As I said to start this post…TO EACH HIS OWN….and how about we leave it at that…