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Feeding a Vegan Child in an Omnivore World

February 8, 2022

When my daughter turned 14, she informed my husband and I that she was “going vegan.” The combination of vegan friends and YouTube videos on the meat and dairy industries so thoroughly impacted her animal-loving heart that suddenly the thought of drinking milk, eating ice cream, or downing pounds of bacon­—her childhood weakness—made her nauseated.

As a mom feeding an omnivore household, the easiest thing to do would have been to let her eat around animal-derived products on the plate or to let her make her own meals, but she was an active and growing teenager, and she needed a more careful approach to replacing the missing nutrition.

Being a healthy vegan teenager was more difficult than she expected.  Protein was plentiful in many common non-animal foods she already ate regularly, like peanut butter and beans, and she found almond and soy milk a suitable substitute–at least in taste and cooking–for cow’s milk, but there is more to meat and dairy than protein and calcium. She began to expand her palate for vegetables from her favorites of broccoli, yellow and orange peppers, and carrots and embracing ones she’d previously distained like spinach, asparagus, sweet potatoes, zucchinis, and eggplants (but not Brussels sprouts; she will go to her grave gagging over Brussels sprouts). We weighed the risks and benefits of nutritional yeast; she sought out a vegan B12 supplement; we discovered chickpea water was a surprisingly good substitute for egg whites in cooking but made a lousy nutritional substitute. My girl who had been my picky eater became my adventurous eater, even embracing tofu, which was a bridge too far for the rest of the family.

What we realized quickly was that learning to prepare and eat a balanced, nutritional vegan diet was exhausting. We had, for so many years, obtained our nutrition one way and now were seeking to find it in an entirely new way that supported the growing brain and active body of a teenager. It took research, deliberation, planning, and a lot more vegetable chopping than we’d previously done.

My daughter is just one of a growing percentage of children who, for reasons either medical or chosen, are eating more restrictively. The February issue of Pediatrics in Review features an article addressing the Nutritional Deficiencies in Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, and Ketogenic Diets (10.1542/pir.2020-004275), outlining the basics of each diet, the health risks and benefits, and the signs and symptoms of nutritional deficiencies pediatricians should look for in their patients. It’s a tremendous resource of information, not only for doctors but also for doctors to pass on to their patients’ families, who are on the frontline of choosing food to put on the table each day.

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