You may have seen the headlines: Sheila O’Leary, a Florida mother, was sentenced to life in prison on Aug. 29 for the starvation death of her toddler in 2019. At 18 months of age, her son Ezra O’Leary weighed only 17 pounds — not even making it into the first percentile of the growth charts commonly used by pediatricians.
When covering the story, many media outlets dubbed O’Leary “vegan mom.” Investigators said that O’Leary told them her family ate only raw fruits and vegetables, and that Ezra was given breast milk as well. His siblings, ages 3 and 5, were also reported to have been malnourished.
Vegans and their supporters say that it’s unfortunate that O’Leary’s case — in addition to a few 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 that had to do with veganism. I think that was child abuse,” Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, a pediatric nutritionist, told HuffPost, noting that the child must not have visited a doctor, as the issue would have been identified much earlier by a pediatrician during a well-child visit.
“It saddens me that many people will be scared away from raising their children on a plant-based diet because of these types of headlines,” said Dr. Yami Cazorla-Lancaster, a pediatrician who has fed her own two sons a plant-based diet for 11 years.
“I am very careful to counsel parents that raw vegan diets are not appropriate for children because it is simply too difficult for them to acquire sufficient calories for growth from raw fruits and vegetables,” explained Cazorla-Lancaster, adding that a child who is not gaining sufficient weight would be diagnosed with failure to thrive and treated by their doctor.
Malkoff-Cohen said that cases like the O’Leary’s “give vegan diets a bad name.” She notes that she has seen adults with inflammation, heart disease and insulin resistance all improve their health by going vegan, and believes that such diets can work for some people.
The 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 have had the privilege of witnessing many healthy, thriving vegan children grow up, and I have no doubt that children can be safely and healthfully raised on an exclusively plant-based diet,” said Cazorla-Lancaster.
Like using cloth diapers or commuting by bicycle, veganism is an eco-conscious lifestyle choice that isn’t mainstream, but feels right to some parents.
“I have followed a vegan diet as a way to extend compassion to animals,” said Karla Moreno-Bryce, a registered dietician in Minnesota. “Both my kids have been following a vegan diet since conception, and it is very rewarding to be able to share this lifestyle with them.”
If you’re considering veganism for your family, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Malkoff-Cohen shared a meal plan she had written for a couple who wanted to raise their toddler vegan. It featured items like a chickpea-potato-broccoli patty and red lentil “meatballs” that sound delicious, but are also a lot of work for the food-preparing parent.
“You have to cook a lot more things,” she said. “You have to be more creative.”
Malkoff-Cohen shared a couple of tricks: A serving of cooked spinach can be added into 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 nutritionist to help their families navigate this new way of eating. There are also guides from organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Cazorla-Lancaster recommends the books “Nourish” and “The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler.”
“With the proper knowledge about the key nutrients for kids who follow a vegan diet . . . and how to meet them through plant based foods, parents can feel reassured they’re supporting the growth and development of their kids, and feel proud of following a vegan lifestyle,” said Moreno-Bryce.
Plan around key nutrients.
Moreno-Bryce identified “calories, fat, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D” as the ones to keep track of when feeding a vegan diet to your kids, and explained that “a variety of plant-based foods from grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds throughout the day and week” will cover almost all of these bases.
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 nondairy milk, frozen banana and almond butter, and lunch could consist of a sweet potato black bean burger with avocado and fries.
Moreno-Bryce said that she uses routines, family meals and intuitive eating with her own children to “ensure that 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 plant-based diets add a B12 supplement as well.
“B12 is a nutrient that naturally lacks in plant foods, and a supplement, in addition to fortified foods that include Vitamin B12, is the most reliable source,” said Moreno-Bryce.
Consider your child’s individual nutritional needs.
A kid with a nut allergy will have to work hard to find other sources of protein and fat. A child with a sensitive stomach might experience digestive discomfort on a high-fiber vegan diet. A teen athlete may need to consume a great quantity of protein and calories.
Any of those children, though, might also be committed to an animal-free diet, and willing to try new kinds of fortified milks or other foods until they find the combination that agrees with both their body and their values.
In the case of the vegan toddler that Malkoff-Cohen helped meal plan for, she became more selective with what she would eat and wasn’t gaining weight, so her parents decided to add eggs and some dairy products into her diet.
“Maybe when she’s 10 or eight, she’ll realize she wants to eat what her parents eat. But I think they did a good thing for her,” said Malkoff-Cohen, who said that the child did grow on her adjusted diet.
“Plant-based diets are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber that are beneficial for health and are often low in the standard American diet,” said Cazorla-Lancaster. “However, if a child is not getting enough calories, they will struggle to gain weight and grow appropriately.”
Explain your why.
As any parent of a toddler can tell you, small children may simply refuse the foods that you offer, and it’s developmentally appropriate for older children to question pretty much everything. Kids who understand the reasons for a vegan diet as part of a bigger picture will be more motivated to stick with it.
“It’s appropriate for parents to discuss with their children why they choose to eat a certain way inside their homes, but it is also important for parents to be aware that as a child grows and is exposed more and more to other ways of eating, they may become curious and have questions,” said Cazorla-Lancaster.
Eventually, children will need to make their own choices when it comes to situations like snack breaks and party foods. Knowing the animal rights or environmental beliefs behind your veganism will go a lot further than vilifying meat and dairy and the people who eat it.
“I have followed a vegan diet as a way to extend compassion to animals, and that is the primary reason for raising my kids on a vegan diet as well,” said Moreno-Bryce.
Cazorla-Lancaster warned against “telling children that they shouldn’t eat a hamburger because they are ‘going to get fat’ or because ‘it causes heart attacks.’” These kinds of statements “can lead to food and body shame and disordered eating behaviors,” she said.
Note that plant-based doesn’t always mean healthy.
Malkoff-Cohen noted that potato chips and Oreos are vegan, but you wouldn’t want your kids eating them frequently. You’ll still want to limit processed foods and emphasize fruits and vegetables.
There are many new plant-based products on the market touting health benefits, but it’s important to read the nutrition labels carefully. A popular egg-substitute that she recommends for her egg allergy clients, for example, has protein, but lacks the other nutrients eggs offer. A plant milk might not have vitamin D added, or may have too much added sugar.
Prepared vegan foods are now more widely available in supermarket freezer aisles, but don’t assume that plant-based automatically means nutrient-rich. These foods can pack a lot of sodium and preservatives, and may not have as much of a variety of plants in them as you would hope.
Simply eating around animal products isn’t usually a good solution, either. Referring to her son’s weekly breakfast menu from school, Malkoff-Cohen noted that, for a child eating only vegan items, a whole wheat bagel with cream cheese and jelly would become just a bagel with jelly, and lose most of its nutritional value. On other days, the only option would be fruit, which wouldn’t sustain a child until lunch. A vegan parent would need to send their child to school every day with vegan alternatives to breakfast, lunch and snack.
Plant-based foods aren’t all-or-nothing.
Maybe you’re not ready to eliminate animal products entirely, but you do want to make changes to your family’s diet to impact your health or reflect your values.
“It really doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing when it comes to health benefits,” said Cazorla-Lancaster. You may not want to train for a marathon, but that doesn’t mean it’s pointless to take a daily walk.
“Incorporating more plants is going to benefit everyone in the family,” Cazorla-Lancaster explained. Perhaps you switch to a nondairy milk, or identify a day of the week to have a vegan family dinner.
Trying new foods and cooking together are other ways you can slowly broaden your kids’ palate and encourage them to find the kind of diet that feels right for them as they start to make their own food decisions.
Moreno-Bryce said that by “talking about why we choose to follow such [a] lifestyle,” she hopes that her 4-year-old and 2-month-old “learn about kindness and grow up to be compassionate human beings.”