Is Veganism Safe For Our Children?

By Jasmine Mahar.

baby
Sourced from https://unsplash.com/

Veganism has gained
momentum in recent years, with Australia having the third fastest growing vegan market in the world. At a dietary level, vegans do not eat meat or any other animal products, including dairy, eggs and honey, while also excluding any other lifestyle products that have exploited animals, including certain beauty products, clothes and furniture.  This global trend has garnered large amounts of media attention surrounding its ethics and its validity as a nutritionally complete diet. More and more national dietary guidelines are condoning this way of eating, including the American Dietetic Association, who stated in 2009 “that
appropriately planne
d vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits…”  Yet while a carefully planned vegan diet can meet all an adult’s nutritional needs (excluding the vitamin B12), the question remains: is veganism a safe for children?

Though not an unheard-of practice, parents raising vegan children have been scrutinised by the media this year after several events in Italy that gained international attention. In July, a fourteen-month-old Italian infant was taken to hospital by his own grandparents and deemed to be severely malnourished, a condition caused by the strict vegan diet his parents had placed him on. An article from The Washington Post details this, as well as previous cases of malnutrition and even infant death after living on a vegan diet without supplements. Only a month later, Elvira Savino from the centre-right Forza Italia Party proposed a bill to parliament that would see parents jailed if proven to be enforcing a vegan diet on children aged sixteen and under. Both The Washington Post article, and this BBC article outlining Ms Savino’s proposed bill, explore the question of whether children can thrive on a vegan diet, but these are not the articles I will be discussing today. This article will explore three pieces, published by both popular news outlets and a health and wellness magazine, all of which portray parents raising vegan children in a positive light, positioning the reader to view them in a researched way which considers several stipulations. These include the parents being well educated, providing their child with a carefully planned, nutritionally complete diet (with supplements if needed), and working collaboratively with a paediatrician or dietician.

On the 21st of October, 2016, CBS News published the uncredited article “Can you raise a healthy vegan baby?” supplied by the Associated Press. CBS News is a US based news organisation, that, though experiencing a recent decline in audience trust, is still found by many American readers and viewers to be largely credible.  This news piece, while in part presenting a factual argument overall, becomes largely evaluative. The central claim is made immediately explicit in the leading line, in part answering the question posed in the headline: “There’s a right way and a wrong way to raise a baby on vegan food. Those who get it wrong, parents say, give the responsible ones a bad name.” Though citing “parents” isn’t the most reliable of sources, the rest of the CBS article works to prove the central claim that vegan parenting is safe and healthy, only given a bad name by the minority who don’t work to create a balanced diet for their children. The repeated use of words such as “neglect,” in relation to an already emotionally charged topic (children), create appeals to emotion. Mentioning previous cases of reported malnourishment in vegan children, including those in Italy, it is stated: “Those cases are not about veganism at all, but are instead about neglect, say parents who are raising their children vegan. Pinning bad parenting on vegan diets, some say, unfairly stigmatizes those who have done their homework.” The emotionally charged word “neglect” is used again as the piece quotes Fulvia Serra, a mother choosing to raise her children on a vegan diet, as she says that “to get a child to the point of starvation, it means you are ignoring him and his crying all the time… It’s neglect.” These emotional appeals begin to emphasise the positive portrayal of the majority of vegan parents.

The factual element of the article “Can you raise a healthy vegan baby?” comes first from reference to the book “Pediatric Nutrition” from the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It describes how, with sound nutrition and dietary planning, ‘it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans,’” giving a researched basis to the expressed ‘fact’ that a diet free from animal products can provide complete nutrition to a child. Further appeal to facts comes with quotations from Sheela Magge, an endocrinologist at the Children’s National Health System and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on nutrition. Magge states: “For children in general you can have a safe vegan diet, but it has to be in consultation with a pediatrician or health care provider,” furthering the stipulations of the CBS article’s central claim, that veganism is safe for children only with adequate research and medical opinion. The article, though based in fact, becomes increasingly one sided through using a collection of real-life examples of poorly executed vegan parenting. “In Florida in 2005, Joseph and Lamoy Andressohn got probation for neglect in the death of their 6-month-old son, who was fed only wheat grass, coconut water and almond milk…” is one such extreme example. By using several similar examples, CBS vilifies the minority of bad vegan parents, characterising them as being stupid and neglectful, but also relies on the warrant that readers are already quite positive towards the vegan lifestyle, as the pro-vegan argument has thus far been minimal.

In concluding the article, CBS reiterates the central claim, which is closely linked to their portrayal of parents choosing to raise vegan children. Quoting the nutritionist Reed Mangels, who raised two vegan children now in their twenties, the article states: “’The problem is not the vegan part of the diet, but it’s the inadequacy of the diet,’ she said of cases that make the news.” This final appeal to authority positions readers to view vegan parents in a more positive light than the media may usually portray, as only the few who do not make the effort to make a vegan diet nutritionally complete for their children cause health problems for their kids.

The next article I will look at, published online by SBS, makes a very similar claim. The SBS is a trusted national news outlet in Australia, the multiplatform news outlet being known for providing factual and reliable information to the public. Written by Louisa Matwiejczyk and published on the 17th of March 2016, before the Italian infant made international headlines, “Are there any health implications for raising your child as a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian?” explicitly states the central claim in the byline of the article, which reads: “Children who are raised as vegetarians grow and develop at the same rate as meat-eaters, writes Louisa Matwiejczyk.” Matwiejczyk uses a factual argument to come to the same conclusion as the previous CBS article, that being that a carefully planned vegan diet, along with the input of a medical professional, is nutritionally sound for developing bodies, and therefore also positions readers to view vegan parents in a positive light.

veggie-bowl
Sourced from United States Dept. of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Photo by Peggy Greb.

After addressing widespread public concern that excluding meat and other animal products will not allow children and teenagers to garner adequate nutrients and calories, an appeal to facts is made, as it is stated that “research shows that children who are raised as vegetarians grow and develop at the same rate as meat-eaters. They receive mostly the same amount of protein, energy and other key nutrients that children need.” This is furthered through supporting quotation from the American Dietetic Association, an appeal to authority, stating: “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.” Coming to this conclusion, though factual, causes the rest of the argument to become slightly evaluative, reporting only the positive factors of veganism. It does, however, acknowledge that diets omitting animal products must be “well planned.” The rising number of vegetarians and vegans is also addressed, but not given a factual basis, creating an informal fallacy, in particular an ad populum argument: “In high-income countries, ethical reasons [for not eating animal products] are more common – and the trend for vegetarianism is increasing.” This statement works to normalise people in society choosing to eat this way, again placing vegans in a positive light, backed up by the fact that the exclusion of meat, eggs and dairy does not necessarily cause nutritional deficiency at any stage of life.

More facts that place vegan parents in a positive light are immediately given after the aforementioned informal fallacy, as Matwiejczyk states that “Research shows that being vegetarian as a child does not contribute to disordered eating. And adolescent vegetarians tend to have a healthier weight and healthier attitude towards eating than their omnivore counterparts.” This overt appeal to facts (though the source is unnamed) also works as an appeal to emotion, stating only beneficial aspects of raising vegan or vegetarian children. The article “Are there any health implications for raising your child as a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian?” continues to be overtly positive, factually proving that vegan and vegetarian diets provide adequate and abundant nutrition through a dietary breakdown of foods that afford the same nutrients and vitamins of animal-sourced produce. Another appeal to authority points out that “According to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, a cup of cooked legumes is equivalent to a serve of cooked meat in energy and comparable nutrients.”  Again, the challenge presented by veganism and total boycott of animal products is addressed in a factual manner, as Matwiejczyk admits it is difficult “for meeting B12, iodine, calcium and vitamin D needs.”

 

It is reiterated, though, that vegan children can thrive, yet this will not occur through a simple exclusion of certain food groups. “Vegan children need to take a regular B12 source and have their diet reviewed by an accredited practising dietitian,” Matwiejczyk states. While this is an evaluative presumption, using the imperative “need” without offering any form of factual or authoritative support, it neatly summarises the both factual and evaluative central claim and nature of the argument, which is then repeated:

“The take-home message is that with careful dietary planning it is very possible for children to be vegetarian and healthy.

In fact, vegetarians enjoy more health benefits compared to meat-eaters. Although there aren’t any guidelines as such, it is useful to have children checked by their GP every six months and, if vegan, to take a regular source of B12 and to visit an accredited practising dietitian.”

While addressing certain stipulations that come as part of feeding a child a vegan diet, that it must be well planned and reviewed by health professionals, the SBS piece “Are there any health implications for raising your child as a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian?” by Louisa Matwiejczyk positions readers to view parents raising vegan children in a positive light, by proving that this diet can be nutritionally sound. Not unlike the previously discussed CBS article “Can you raise a healthy vegan baby?” facts and appeals to authority dominate the evaluations of this emotional subject.

Similarly, an overtly factual approach is taken in the final article I will be examining. Published by SELF Magazine, a women’s health, wellness, beauty and style magazine, on the 16th of August 2016, the article “Is it safe to put a child on a vegan diet?” poses the same question as CBS and SBS, made clear in the title. Written by Haley Goldberg, the article is extremely factual in nature, with little authorial opinion in the way of evaluation, instead using the opinions of professional dietary experts and healthcare providers. The central claim, answering the question posed in the headline, is also exactly that of the previously discussed articles; vegan diets are safe for children only if the proper attention to nutrition is given and approved by a dietician or paediatrician. Therefore, again, readers are positioned to view parents raising vegan children in a controlled positive light, as we are encouraged to move away from antiquated thought patterns that condemn diets containing no animal products, but realise that veganism must be undertaken only with the appropriate knowledge and planning.

A factual tone is immediately adopted by Goldberg in this article, through a brief discussion of the events in Italy earlier in the year which led to Elvira Savino proposing the bill to make it illegal for parents to limit children under the age of sixteen to a vegan diet, referring to The Washington Post through a hyperlink. Brief evaluative authorial intervention describes the July case of the hospitalised fourteen-month-old as “shocking,” admitting that it is one of four similar recent incidents in Italy alone. A quote from Savino first introduces us to the article’s central claim, as she is reported to have stated: “I just find it absurd that some parents are allowed to impose their will on children in an almost fanatical, religious way, often without proper scientific knowledge or medical consultation.” Proper scientific knowledge and medical consultation are viewed as an imperative aspect of raising vegan children, part of the central claim which is supported by facts throughout the remainder of the article, which seeks to answer its own question, “Is putting a child, especially an infant, on a vegan diet unsafe?” In short, this is answered with an appeal to authority: “According to experts, the answer is no.” The central claim is then explicitly stated, as Goldberg continues: “A vegan diet can be healthy for a child—if it’s done properly. And that means monitoring the vitamins, calories, and minerals a child is or isn’t receiving from their diet, and providing supplements when necessary,” the hyperlink to Healthy Children providing support an appeal to both facts and authority.

Appeals to authority are continually made through “Is it safe to put a child on a vegan diet?” as way of supporting the main conclusion. Jill Castle is the first specifically referenced authority, as registered dietician and nutritionist as well as childhood nutrition expert.

“There are certain nutrients we know in the very early years of life that are very critical to normal brain development and normal growth of an infant or a young toddler… And those nutrients can be missing or compromised if a parent were to use a vegan diet without good knowledge of the diet and good knowledge of the food they need to be using to make sure a child gets all the nutrients that they need.”

This, along with the following appeals to facts and authority, positions the audience to take a positive, yet wary stance towards parents raising their children on a vegan diet. Next resourced is Sheela Magge, an endocrinologist at the Children’s National Health System, who is paraphrased stating the position of the American Academy of Paediatrics, that “the AAP generally rules that restrictive diets aren’t unsafe, but they need to be followed in consultation with a pediatrician to make sure children and infants aren’t missing out on crucial nutrients and minerals,” also referencing the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics through hyperlink. These supporting arguments work to educate readers. They continuously prove that while a child can receive complete nutrition through a diet free from animal products (most probably with certain supplements), parents choosing to raise their children this way must be extremely well educated about their actions. Parents who do not educate themselves on their child’s nutritional needs are therefore characterised as neglectful.

Based upon the former appeals to fact and authority, as well as others I do not have time to mention, Goldberg comes to a conclusion which again succinctly repeats the central claim, that “the issue isn’t children on a vegan diet itself, then, but a lack of knowledge and vigilance when putting children on a vegan diet.” Jill Castle is again drawn upon, as she states that laws banning veganism are not what we need. Rather, society would benefit through more education for parents opting to choose a vegan lifestyle for their children.

“You look at the media and children doing very poorly on the vegan diet, it really does stem from a lack of knowledge on the parent side and a lack of monitoring on the healthcare side,” Castle says. “If a family decides to go this path, everyone needs to be wide-eyed and watching and monitoring and making sure that family has everything they need to support that child well and be able to step in early if things aren’t going well.”

mums
Sourced from https://www.flickr.com/. Photo by Owen Lucas

Overall, here we see three articles published this year, all by credible sources of news (both in a conventional news format and health and wellness format) that, through repeated appeals to facts and authority, find that veganism is safe for our children. In doing this, the Associated Press article “Can you raise a healthy vegan baby,” the SBS article “Are there any health implications for raising your child as a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian?” by Louisa Matwiejczyk and SELF Magazine’s article “Is it safe to put a child on a vegan diet?” by Haley Goldberg all position readers to take a more positive view towards parents choosing to raise vegan children. The audience is, throughout all three pieces, encouraged to put aside antiquated prejudices against veganism and its supposed nutritional lack, and accept that while raising children on such a diet takes copious amounts of knowledge and planning, it can be done successfully, providing and nutritionally adequate and abundant diet for growing bodies. The only parents characterised as being neglectful, therefore, are those who choose not to educate themselves or work with a health practitioner, putting their children’s health at risk.

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