Spilling the Beans on Vegan Parenting

Time has most certainly been good to vegans. As awareness about plant-based foods and veganism increases, so do the variety of foods and products. South Africa in particular ranked at number 23 globally as one of the countries where veganism is most popular, according to Google Trends Data in 2019. While it’s easier to make the personal choice to go vegan, what does the increase in adults going vegan mean for children? If you’re vegan, thinking about transitioning and you’re wondering about what that all means for your parenting experience or your child’s physical health, fret not and read on. 

Parents and soon-to-be parents who are living in this golden age of plant-based foods and veganism are spoiled for choice when it comes to their kids and while there is a lot to consider, we’ve consulted a few vegan medical professionals and vegan parents to help us guide you through this journey.

On the Vegan Parenting experience

Although vegans aren’t all the same, most vegans prize values such as compassion for all living animals (human and non-human), non-violence, equality and environmentalism. Others find that it complements or enhances their values of anti-racism and feminism. Therefore, even though it’s a choice that largely entails changing your diet, it’s these very values that vegan parents want to instil in their children. 

Being vegan in a non-vegan world is not easy, but Anja Gray, a former horseback-rider from Bloemfontein, Free State, who’s been vegan for 9 years says that from what she’s seen, vegan children can be very vocal and articulate about the beliefs they grow up with. 

“They embrace those values as soon as it makes sense to them”, says the mother of two children who’ve been vegan since conception. “I don’t often trust teachers and child caretakers when it comes to respecting my children’s lifestyles, however,  in my opinion, vegan children tend to be very outspoken, informed and passionate about their food and will often ask what’s in the food that other people give them. They also tend to give the facts about why they don’t eat certain foods to other people”

While some parents may fear that having your child go vegan isn’t ethical because it takes away their choice, vegan parents often believe that their children get to actively practise choice when they are confronted with daily situations that don’t complement their lifestyles. If children and parents are able to sit down to discuss and interrogate the reasons for their beliefs and lifestyle, children might be able to negotiate their way around a non-vegan world with a strong sense of self. 

Similarly, Jeanarie Norquoy, an HR manager and mother of a two-year-old from Edenvale, Gauteng, looks forward to this. “I feel like my child is going to have really strong morals and ethics. She seems like she might already be a little game-changer, and I see her speaking up against the cruelty of animals in future. I’ll be proud of her no matter what though”, says Jeanarie.

Many parents express that parenting comes with many challenges, which could include mental and physical health problems, financial difficulties and so much more. That’s why it’s so important that, like other parents, vegan parents should take advantage of joining like-minded parenting communities or having strong support groups from family or friends. Anja and Jeanarie are both members of a Facebook group called Vegan Parenting in South Africa, a friendly community hosted by the South African Vegan Society, where vegan, transitioning and/or mixed vegan/vegetarian / non-vegan families and caregivers can connect, ask for advice, and share information and experiences. 

On Money and accessibility in Vegan Parenting

Vegans often get the bad rep of being too bougie and expensive, but it all depends on what your priorities are. People who go vegan and don’t have strong reasons that resonate with their core values might often rush to seek the exact same tastes that their animal-based diet gave them, thus neglecting the healthy and more financially sustainable vegan experience that’s said to be just as tasty. That’s when they’re likely to depend on expensive vegan junk foods and processed foods like vegan cheeses, candies and meat substitutes more often than they probably should. 

“Because I try to eat and feed my baby a vegan diet in its healthy form, with fresh fruit, veggies, grains, legumes, edible mushrooms and nuts, It doesn’t cost me too much. Plant-based milks are pricey, but I can also make my own if I want to. It’s really about planning meals and shopping smart”, says Jeanarie.

Most parents take the time to do some research when it comes to things like what their babies eat, the toys they play with and toiletries that suit them. As a vegan parent, you might have to dig a little deeper when it comes to finding things like the right baby formula or non-leather school shoes. In such instances, being part of an online or real life community can be helpful. You should not at all hesitate to ask.

“Make sure you are doing enough research to put yourself at ease”, says Anja on her advice for future vegan parents. “Make sure you introduce your child to a variety of foods. Now that there are so many vegan options available, try to stay away from the heavily processed foods and enjoy the journey of discovering new foods with your children”.

Interview on Health Concerns and Benefits

No matter where you are, vegan communities are very helpful and filled to the brim with useful information. In our search for doctors to interview, suggestions were not hard to come by. And with vegan doctors being relatively rare and so sought after by vegan parents, it’s no wonder so many were willing to share. We came across Dr JN Narsai, a paediatrician from Hillcrest, Durban who was born and raised on a vegetarian diet just as his two children were. We also met Dr Anastacia Tomson, a medical doctor in primary care from Cape Town, as well as an author and activist, with specific interests in LGBTQIA+ communities and veganism.

Vegan and plant-based doctors often take personal initiative to study and research diet and health. When we asked the doctors about how much they learn about nutrition in medicine, they both expressed a desire for expanding nutrition in medical teachings.

Dr Narsai: Doctors are generally taught to treat disease and only a few have taken the time and effort to actually research diet as a cure to illness and prevention of disease. Medical teaching is sadly lacking in teaching doctors to advocate to eat in a manner as to promote good health. This should form an integral part of medical teachings and should be as important as drug therapy in disease. 

From your perspective, what is the general perspective regarding plant-based living in the healthcare community?

Dr Tomson: I think that while there is still some myth-busting that needs to be done, and that some scientifically-unsound concerns exist about a plant-based diet not being healthy, there is a growing trend towards acknowledging the safety and benefits of such a lifestyle.

What are some of the most important nutrients needed during the pregnancy and breastfeeding stages for the mom and baby? Can a plant-based diet serve the needs of both at this stage?

Dr Tomson: Human bodies, whether growing or developed, are reliant on a mixture of micronutrients (such as vitamins) and macronutrients (such as lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins or amino acids) in order to carry out metabolic functions and to synthesize cellular structures. 

We certainly know that all vital nutrients can be obtained through a plant-based diet and that a balanced and comprehensive eating plan should not leave any deficiencies. And in the instances where it does become difficult to meet these needs through diet alone, it’s generally quite easy to introduce supplements.

Dr Narsai: Vitamin D and  B12 can be a problem, so loads of sunshine and adding some nutritional yeast to your diet will avoid any deficiency of these vitamins. I usually recommend and take Biostrath which is a yeast-based product so my B12 has never been low.

Also, the fewer processed foods with fewer preservatives and additives we choose the more our bodies can strive to maintain good health.

Dr Tomson: Remember, some children are fussy eaters and this might make it difficult to ensure that they get a balanced nutrient intake – in this instance, it becomes important to stay in close contact with a dietitian and doctor to ensure that the child’s needs are met and that any necessary monitoring can be carried out.

Do you have any advice for parents when it comes to food in general?

Dr Narsai: As a doctor, I often counsel parents to avoid junk and sugary foods in the child’s diet, as this directly impacts the brain leading to attention and hyperactivity problems.

Are there any significant health benefits to raising your baby vegan?

Dr Tomson: As I mentioned earlier, you can get all your vital nutrients through a plant-based diet and it stands to reason that there very well could be benefits. We know that many animal proteins have pro-inflammatory characteristics, and can play a role in the development of illnesses like cancers. We also know that these proteins can often be immunogenic, or elicit allergic reactions, or be the target of a specific dietary sensitivity, such as lactose intolerance.

Dr Narsai: Parents can be assured that a vegan diet, rich in all the colours of fruits and vegetables, including a variety of nuts and seeds, will provide adequate wholesome nutrition. As long as parents think in terms of healthy nutritional choices and are aware of the supplementary options for vitamin D and B12, babies will generally not have any problems.

Parents can rest assured that a vegan diet is teaching your child to eat consciously and be more caring of our planet and all its creatures.

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