Raising children vegan: meet the families

‘I feel like I always need to prove myself . . . and to prove my child is healthy’

 

Ciara Norton (28) has been a vegan since she was 16 but when she was expecting her first child four years ago, she began to doubt if she was getting everything she needed from her diet for a healthy pregnancy.

“I was very tired, which I know now is quite normal. But I was a bit worried and wondered – am I eating healthily enough? I saw a dietician and she went through my diet and said it was all fine, so I was reassured.”

Norton took a multivitamin supplement intended for pregnancy and breastfeeding and her GP was happy enough, keeping an eye on blood test results.

Like many committed vegans, she could not really countenance bringing up a child any other way. Although the baby’s father John O’Rourke was eating meat at the time – he has since given up all animal products too – he told her he was happy with their son being raised vegan.

Since the arrival of Rian, now 3½, and then his brother Oran (14 months), Norton says it hasn’t been too difficult to ensure the children eat well at home in Kanturk, Co Cork. They eat “loads” and, in addition to all the home-cooked food, there are plenty of vegan products available now that kids like – such as chocolate buttons, sausages and all the milks – she points out.

Rian takes a multivitamin supplement that includes B12 but Oran doesn’t yet because he is still breastfeeding and she reckons he gets enough from that.

What can be more of a problem is trying to explain to other people that her children are healthy.

“I find that a bit of a challenge. I feel like I always need to prove myself,” she says. One of the motivations for starting her Vegan Mammy blog and Facebook page was to show extended family and friends that her children eat healthily, as well as to share recipes and “let other parents know there are other people doing it”.

Norton hasn’t encountered anybody in “real life” who has a problem with her decision but “I would come across people online who might say stuff”.

It’s no wonder vegan parents can feel a bit defensive when headlines surface in the media such as last month’s “Italian baby kept on vegan diet taken into care after being found malnourished” in the UK’s Telegraph. The 14-month-old boy’s weight was only slightly higher than that of an average three-month-old, his calcium levels barely adequate for survival and he had a congenital heart condition that required emergency surgery at the Milan hospital where he was admitted.

It was a hot topic in Italy because the previous month a two-year-old girl on a vegan diet had been taken into intensive care in a Genoa hospital after doctors found her to be suffering from vitamin deficiencies and low levels of haemoglobin

Such media reports annoy Jacquie Knox, a single mother in Ramelton, Co Donegal, whose son Conor (12) has been vegetarian since birth and vegan from the age of three.

“They focus on the vegan thing rather than the fact that they have brought up their child weirdly. There are plenty of abused, meat-eating children who have terrible diets,” she points out.

It has been 20 years since Knox has eaten meat but the discovery that Conor was allergic to dairy and eggs gave her the kickstart to become vegan. “I had been thinking about it but was just lazy really; it’s easier to be a vegetarian.”

She had breastfed her son and he only began to have issues when he went on to solids – having follow-on milk, cheese and yogurts. He had frequent bronchitis and asthma attacks, as well as eczema, before tests showed it was an allergic reaction.

Allergy eased

“When we found out, we just cut it out and within a week he was completely cured,” she says. “We went back to the doctor and he said ‘the vegan diet obviously agrees with him – it’s the best I have ever heard his chest’.”

Socially, Knox says, being vegan hasn’t been a problem for her son, with friends supportive and keen to try his food. The vegan sausage rolls he takes into school are so popular that she gives him extra to share. When he’s invited to birthday parties, she usually tells parents ahead of time; they will always ask what he can eat and then stock up if necessary.

Conor is old enough now to decide himself whether or not he wants to continue being a vegan but she thinks he will.

“He says he is quite repulsed at the idea of eating an animal.” He also finds the idea of adult humans drinking a cow’s milk that’s intended for its calf “really weird. He is quite happy with soya”.

Her main concerns are to ensure he gets enough vitamin B12, iron and iodine and she sometimes gives him supplements. However, he has a varied diet and she is confident he is not missing out on anything.

“There is calcium in tofu and a lot of the vegan substitute products have things added into them, like vitamin B12, as do fortified cereals,” she says.

Although there are no official statistics for people in Ireland who have purged animal products from their lives, Vegan Ireland, founded in 2009, is confident the number is growing. Spokesman Edmund Long points to all the restaurants, supermarkets and other businesses now catering for vegans, as well as increases in the society’s mailing list and Facebook page activity, as signs of its rising popularity.

With sourcing vegan food a lot easier these days, he believes social issues are now the main challenge for vegan families.

“They are regularly addressing very basic questions from people who have a genuine interest in veganism but have not researched a vegan lifestyle. This can lead to anxiety around misconceptions from a family member, work colleagues, health professionals or educators.”

Greater efforts are needed, Long says, to educate and support vegan families, and the general public, about veganism.

Vegan parent and founder of last year’s inaugural Dublin Vegfest, Pears Hussey, would like to see the HSE follow the lead of the NHS in the UK and include a section of advice for vegan families on its website, acknowledging it can be a healthy choice. This would also help extended family, such as grandparents, “put their mind at ease”.

A vegan since 1999, Hussey lives in central Dublin with a vegan partner and co-parents his son Robin (10), whose birth mother is not vegan.

It’s easier

“It is definitely easier to raise a vegan child when both parents are on the same page and they are both committed to the same lifestyle, as it would be with any choice,” he says, however there have been no major issues.

“He’s vegan with me and we’re vegan at home and I always give him the option if he’s out, at a party, to try some non-vegan food but he chooses not to. I don’t think he would describe himself as vegan but he is very much on the road to it.”

Jenny McKeating is glad she didn’t have children when she became vegetarian at the age of 21 “because I wasn’t doing it properly”. After she and a work colleague in Dublin decided to cut out meat, she ate mostly pizza and sweetcorn and “ended up looking unhealthy, feeling unhealthy and putting on a lot of weight”. Gradually, through research and advice from other vegetarians, she gathered enough knowledge to eat a varied, nutritious diet.

When it came to starting a family in Carrigaline, Co Cork, she told her husband Stephen, an occasional meat-eater, that she would like their children to be vegetarian.

“Stephen eats vegetarian at home and mostly out, but he wouldn’t class himself as one because he is the type who might order a burger off the menu,” she says.

“He was fully supportive of it because I was cooking vegetarian meals at home and I was confident in raising them vegetarian.”

Now with two children, Leon (three) and one-year-old Neva, McKeating believes the family is probably “in transition” towards becoming vegan.

“Ideal as I think it would be to be vegan for a lot of reasons – health, morals, that kind of stuff – we have a meat eater in the house and I can’t put my choices on to my husband.”

As it is, she and the children rarely eat dairy, although she couldn’t breastfeed, she explains, so both were on formula as babies and her daughter is now on “growing up” milk. Her son drinks almond milk and oat milk and they both have almond milk in the morning in their porridge.

Love cheese

However the children love cheese – Leon’s favourite lunch is a spinach, sweetcorn and cheddar wrap – and although they have tried and liked vegan cheese, “it’s double the price, which is a shame”, says McKeating, who runs an “alternative parent” Facebook page.

She started the page to counter the isolation of motherhood – Stephen works away from home all week – but has also found it “a great way of showing people who were doubting me that I was really putting in the effort”. She recalls how, when pregnant, a woman told her she was “a f**king idiot” for planning to bring her child up vegetarian.

“I would be happy to be vegan myself; it doesn’t mean I want to do it to my children just yet. But I am not knocking the parents who do it.”

Because her children eat well, she doesn’t give them a multivitamin supplement although she sprinkles nutritional yeast, a source of B vitamins, zinc, iron and protein, on their toast, pasta and cereals.

However “not for a second, if I thought they needed it would I not give it to them”, she stresses.

“Every day they genuinely eat not only their vegetables and fruit, they eat pulses, they eat beans and lentils, they eat nuts – we use nut butters.” They love spinach smoothies and almond milk shakes; for snacks they have dark apricots because they naturally contain iron.

Concern for animals is McKeating’s motivation for not eating meat, not wanting to contribute in any way to “barbaric” intensive farming and she hopes her children won’t want to either.

“But I do not own their brains and their bodies. When they are old enough and I don’t have to cook for them, if they choose to go their own way, I will know I will have done what I could. At the moment they are being raised the way I think is right.”

For more information, see vegan.ie and veganmammy.com

swayman@irishtimes.com

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