You may have seen the headlines: Sheila O’Leary, a Florida mother, was sentenced to life in prison on August 29 for starving her toddler to death in 2019. At 18 months, her son Ezra O’Leary weighed just 17 pounds – not even making the first percentile of the growth charts commonly used by pediatricians.
In covering the story, many media outlets referred to O’Leary as a “vegan mom.” Investigators said O’Leary told them her family only ate raw fruits and vegetables, and that Ezra was also given breast milk. His siblings aged 3 and 5 are said to have been malnourished as well.
Vegans and their supporters say it’s unfortunate that O’Leary’s case — along with several others that have made headlines over the years — is the only example of vegan parenting that many people have heard of.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with veganism. I think that was child abuse.” Deborah Malkoff-Cohena pediatric nutritionist, told the HuffPost, noting that the child should not have seen a doctor because the problem would have been detected much earlier by a pediatrician in a healthy child’s visit.
“It saddens me that a lot of people are scared of raising their kids on a plant-based diet because of this kind of headline,” he said dr Yami Cazorla Lancastera pediatrician who has been feeding her own two sons a plant-based diet for 11 years.
“I’m very careful to advise parents that a raw vegan diet is not appropriate for children because it’s just too difficult for them to get enough calories from raw fruits and vegetables to grow,” explained Cazorla-Lancaster and added that a child who does not gain sufficient weight would be diagnosed with failure to thrive and treated by their doctor.
Malkoff-Cohen said cases like O’Leary’s “give a bad name to vegan diets.” She notes that she’s seen adults with inflammation, heart disease, and insulin resistance all improve their health by going vegan, and believes such diets can work for some people.
That American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports “appropriately planned” vegan diets “for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
“I’ve been privileged to see many healthy, thriving vegan children growing up, and I have no doubt that children can grow up safe and healthy on an all-plant-based diet,” said Cazorla-Lancaster.
Like using cloth diapers or commuting by bike, veganism is an environmentally conscious way of life that’s not mainstream, but feels right to some parents.
“I went vegan to show compassion for animals,” he said Karla Moreno-Brycea registered dietitian in Minnesota. “Both of my children have been vegan since conception and it is very rewarding to be able to share this lifestyle with them.”
If you are considering veganism for your family, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Malkoff-Cohen shared a meal plan she wrote for a couple who wanted their toddler to be vegan. It included items like chickpea, potato and broccoli patties and red lentil “meatballs,” which sound delicious but also mean a lot of work for the parents who prepare the food.
“You have a lot more cooking to do,” she said. “You have to be more creative”
Malkoff-Cohen shared a few tricks: A serving of cooked spinach can be added to a smoothie for a dose of calcium. You can sprinkle fortified nutritional yeast on pasta and popcorn for a good source of B vitamins.
Some parents hire a dietitian to help their families with this new way of eating. There are also Leader by organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Cazorla-Lancaster recommends the books “nurture” and “The plant-based baby and toddler.”
“With the right knowledge about the most important nutrients for children who follow a vegan diet. . . and how they can address them through plant-based foods, parents can be confident that they are supporting their children’s growth and development and feel proud to be living a vegan lifestyle,” Moreno-Bryce said.
Plan around important nutrients.
Moreno-Bryce identifies “Calories, Fat, Iron, Zinc, Iodine, Calcium, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D” as the ones to keep in mind when feeding your kids a vegan diet, explaining that “a variety of plant-based foods such as grains, legumes, fruit , Vegetables, Nuts, and Seeds Throughout the Day and Week” covers almost all of these basics.
Malkoff-Cohen’s meal plan included sources of protein and fat at every meal, as well as daily servings of iron and calcium. Breakfast might be a smoothie with plant-based milk, frozen banana, and almond butter, and lunch might be a sweet potato burger with black beans, avocado, and fries.
Moreno-Bryce said she uses routines, family meals, and intuitive eating with her own children to “ensure I’m best supporting their growth and development while following a vegan diet.”
Cazorla-Lancaster said she recommends that all of her patients take a vitamin D supplement and that those on a plant-based diet also add a B12 supplement.
“B12 is a nutrient that is naturally lacking in plant foods, and a dietary supplement is the most reliable source along with fortified foods that contain vitamin B12,” Moreno-Bryce said.
Consider your child’s individual nutritional needs.
A child with a nut allergy has to work hard to find other sources of protein and fat. A child with a sensitive stomach may experience indigestion on a high-fiber vegan diet. A teenage athlete may need to consume a large amount of protein and calories.
However, each of these children could also be committed to an animal-free diet and be willing to try new types of fortified milk or other foods until they find the combination that works both with their body and their values.
In the case of the vegan toddler that Malkoff-Cohen helped with meal planning, she became more selective about what she would eat and didn’t gain weight, so her parents decided to include eggs and some dairy in her diet.
“Maybe by 10 or 8 years old she will realize that she wants to eat what her parents eat. But I think they did a good thing for her,” said Malkoff-Cohen, who said the child grew with her adjusted diet.
“Plant-based diets are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber that are beneficial to health and are often low in standard American diets,” Cazorla-Lancaster said. “However, if a child is not consuming enough calories, they will have difficulty gaining weight and growing appropriately.”
Explain your why.
As any parent of a toddler can tell you, young children may simply reject the foods you are offered, and it is developmentally appropriate for older children to question just about everything. Children who understand the reasons for going vegan as part of a larger whole will be more motivated to stick with it.
“It’s appropriate for parents to discuss with their children why they are making certain food choices at home, but it’s also important for parents to be aware that as a child grows and becomes more exposed to different eating habits know, they might get curious and have questions,” said Cazorla-Lancaster.
Ultimately, children must make their own decisions when it comes to situations like snack breaks and party food. Knowing the animal rights or environmental beliefs behind your veganism will go much further than denigrating meat and dairy and the people who eat them.
“I went vegan to show compassion for animals, and that’s the main reason I’m raising my kids vegan as well.‘ Moreno-Bryce said.
Cazorla-Lancaster cautioned against “telling kids not to eat hamburgers because they ‘get fat’ or ’cause heart attacks.'” behavior,” she says.
Note that plant-based doesn’t always mean healthy.
Malkoff-Cohen noted that potato chips and Oreos are vegan, but you don’t want your kids to eat them frequently. You should still limit processed foods and emphasize fruits and vegetables.
There are many new herbal products on the market touting health benefits, but it’s important to read the nutritional information carefully. A popular egg substitute that she recommends to her customers with egg allergies, for example, contains protein but lacks the other nutrients that eggs provide. A plant-based milk may not have vitamin D or may have too much added sugar.
Vegan ready meals are now widely available in supermarket freezers, but don’t assume that plant-based automatically means nutrient dense. These foods can be high in sodium and preservatives, and may not contain as many different plants as you would hope.
Simply eating animal products is usually not a good solution either. Referring to her son’s weekly breakfast menu from school, Malkoff-Cohen noted that for a kid who eats only vegan produce, a whole grain bagel with cream cheese and jelly becomes a bagel with jelly and loses most of its nutritional value. Other days, fruit would be the only option that would not feed a child until lunchtime. A vegan parent would have to send their child to school every day with vegan alternatives for breakfast, lunch and snacks.
Plant-based foods are not all or nothing.
Maybe you’re not ready to completely eliminate animal products, but you want to make changes to your family’s diet to affect your health or reflect your values.
“It really doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to health benefits,” Cazorla-Lancaster said. You might not want to train for a marathon, but that doesn’t mean there’s no point in going for a daily walk.
“Incorporating more plants will benefit everyone in the family,” explained Cazorla-Lancaster. Maybe switch to a plant-based milk or designate a day of the week for a vegan family dinner.
Trying new foods and cooking together are other ways you can slowly expand your kids’ taste buds and encourage them to find the kind of nutrition that feels right for them as they begin to make their own food choices .
Moreno-Bryce said while “talking about why we choose to follow such [a] lifestyle,” she hopes her 4-year-old, 2-month-old child “learns about kindness and grows up to be compassionate people.”