It turns out that my plant-based diet is working really well for me. I’ve figured this out after consulting with many health professionals and I’ve seen a lot of interesting stories around the world in this regard.
Around the world: A plant-based diet since childhood
Can a vegan diet damage your child’s health? Social workers in Lewisham believe it can, which is why they tried to take a five-year-old who appeared to have rickets into care. The couple say they don’t eat dairy products because asthma runs in the family, but they’re not vegans, as social workers claimed, because they do eat fish. However, the case raises questions about how difficult it is to nourish a young child adequately on a restrictive diet and whether the risks involved are too great.
Pediatric dietician Helen Wilcock, a member of the British Dietetic Association, says she tries not to be judgmental about the rights and wrongs of vegan diets for young children, but any parent wanting to raise their child as a vegan needs to be very well-informed. “Vegan children can be deficient in vitamin D, calcium, iron and possibly vitamin B12, so they need supplements,” she says.
Another big issue is that a vegan diet isn’t very energy-rich: you have to eat a lot of it to get enough energy. But children typically don’t eat a lot, so getting enough calories into them can be difficult. “I recommend adding oil to their food,” Wilcock says, “because that gives them more calories.”
Another difficulty is protein. “If a child eats meat and fish, it’s easy to get all the right amino acids. But if a child is getting protein from pulses, the problem is that one type of bean might not provide every amino acid, so there has to be a good balance of pulses. In other words, a child who only eats chicken will get all the amino acids, but a child who only eats one type of bean won’t.”
So, information is the key – but do families really try to raise their children on vegan diets without being adequately informed? Sometimes, says Wilcock, they do – often because they are taken in by misleading information on the internet. And when a vegan diet starts to go wrong, the first symptom is usually that the child fails to thrive or grow properly. It’s the shortage of calories and protein that kicks in first, she says, with rickets (caused by deficiencies in vitamin D and calcium) usually much further down the line. “Families are then referred to a dietician like me for advice – and every parent I’ve seen has been happy to make the changes I’ve recommended, because first and foremost they want their child to be healthy.”
The most challenging time for parents raising vegan children is when they are under five – although another crucial time is for girls around puberty, when iron levels can dip. But the risks of inadvertently malnourishing a child aren’t restricted to veganism. According to Claire Williamson of the British Nutrition Foundation, one of the mistakes parents can make is to assume, wrongly, that what’s healthy for an adult is healthy for a child. “For example, semi-skimmed milk, low-fat foods and high-fiber foods may be best for adults, but under-fives need full-fat dairy produce.
Amanda Baker at the Vegan Society says the real issue isn’t whether a child’s diet is vegan or not, or restricted or not, the important point is whether it’s healthy. “There are plenty of children who are eating a bad diet, and they’re not vegan,” she says. “Vegan parents have to plan their child’s food carefully. Of course, there are pitfalls, but there are pitfalls for all parents and for any diet. “The reality is that vegan parents are more likely to cook at home, and are likely to be very knowledgeable about nutrition because they have had to make a lot of effort to follow the diet they do. Many of them follow a wholefood diet, and avoid trans-fats and too much salt. It’s actually much easier for vegans and their children to meet the five-a-day guidelines than for other people.” Vegans, she says, are victims of the fact that many people, from doctors and health workers to social workers and other parents, are badly informed. “We’ve written to every GP’s surgery in an attempt to make sure there’s better information out there. Parents can come in for mistaken pressure from people with genuine concerns, simply because the issues aren’t properly understood.”
Around the world: more vegetables, more energy
“In 2004, I was the only vegan in the village,” says Fiona Oakes, a multi-world-record-breaking marathon runner. “But now you see vegan runners everywhere.” An animal lover who set up her own animal sanctuary, Oakes started a running club called Vegan Runners in 2004. The idea came about after she saw the long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe on TV and spotted an opportunity. Oakes was a good runner and thought that, if she got faster, she could end up alongside Radcliffe at the start line of the London marathon, on national television, with the words “Vegan Runners” emblazoned across her vest.
“It was a way of showcasing the cause,” she says. “I’d been vegan since I was six years old. I’d lost my kneecap from an illness when I was 17 and been told I would never run again. If I could do this as a vegan, it showed that anything was possible.” Back then she was a lone crusader, trying to introduce people to the word “vegan” in a positive way. “Rather than cause disruption and be in people’s faces, by running, I was leading by example and generating interest in a positive way,” she says.
She went on to twice finish in the top 20 in major marathons, with a personal best of two hours 38 minutes, and also won the north pole marathon. Oakes’ powerful example has seen the Vegan Runners steadily increase their numbers over the years. But with the interest in veganism growing, partly in response to the global climate crisis, the club’s numbers have swelled exponentially in the past three years; there are almost 4,000 today, with more than 40 local groups across the country, their distinctive tops unmissable at races.
Lisa Gawthorne joined Vegan Runners in 2018. She says it is great to be surrounded by like-minded people and that the club forms “a really kind and compassionate running community”. “I think it’s important to bounce off people who are going through similar things to you and to share experiences,” she says. “This may include tips on nutrition or the best vegan running shoes. It all helps.” Most running shoes that don’t use leather or suede are vegan, but sometimes the glues used in shoes can be made from animal products. The Vegan Runners’ website has a helpful guide to which brands are fully vegan. Gawthorne has been vegan for 16 years and is an international road runner and duathlon athlete. She believes being vegan has helped her to perform at such a high level. “It improves recovery time, is better for the digestive system and promotes better sleep,” she says. “I have never had as much energy as I have since moving from a vegetarian to a vegan diet.”
“Different cultures around the world suggest that a plant-based diet is good for your health.”