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Vegan Babies: A New Trend?

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Hollywood stars taking up veganism is nothing new: plenty of celebs -- Jessica Simpson and Olivia Wilde among them -- value forgoing animal products in favor of a plant-based diet. Last January, even our former cheeseburger-loving president, Bill Clinton, jumped on the bandwagon as a health precaution.

But vegan babies? Yes. Alicia Silverstone has been raising her three-month-old baby, Bear Blu, on a strictly vegan diet. And they're not just in Hollywood: Many parents are raising their children on a meat, fish, dairy and yes, even honey-free diet (don't forget about those bees).

"To raise our kids vegan was never really a question," said Caity McCardell, 43, a mom of two and blogger who lives in Oceano, Calif. McCardell and her husband have raised their daughter and son vegan since they were born (the children are now 6 and 8-years-old).

In January, the Associated Press reported that estimates put vegans in America at around 1 percent of the population. But while the diet may be more mainstream than it once was, some still wonder how women like McCardell manage to make it through pregnancy and breastfeeding without any animal products. (It may be especially difficult to grasp for moms who remember craving cheeseburgers and Oreo milkshakes during pregnancy, both off-limits if you're vegan.)

Even staunch-vegan Natalie Portman reverted back to a less-strict vegetarian diet during her pregnancy to satisfy her craving for traditional baked goods, which often contain eggs.

McCardell acknowledges she struggled: She even confessed to a vegetarian magazine about having dreams of Jack in the Box sandwiches and requesting that a manager at a natural foods store find her some cheese from "happy goats." (She didn't buy any, but still cried the whole way home). During a particularly intense craving for meat and cheese as she made her way through the Taco Bell drive-through window, she almost caved.

"I was in this crazy place of hunger, and I ordered some tacos with no cheese and no meat. I can remember wanting to tell her, 'If you leave cheese on it's really okay,' " she said.

McCardell cheated only once during two pregnancies (she ate some feta cheese on a salad but besides that, she remained animal free). She says her kids turned out perfectly healthy.

"My kids are above average at school and they're super tall," she said. "It's not like they're these twiggy, skinny, little people who don’t get all the nutrients they need."

Getting past the idea of a vegan pregnancy is one thing, but a child who doesn't drink milk? That image is harder for some to accept.

"I have recently met 3 separate moms planning on raising vegan babies... is this a new trend? Can this possibly be healthy? WTF?" one user wrote last month in a community forum on urbanbaby.com last month.

"This is ridiculous," answered one respondent.

"I think its criminal," said another.

Some level of skepticism and concern is understandable: The idea of milk being one of the magic ingredients that makes children grow has long been ingrained in our culture (not to mention that kid-food basics like string cheese and chicken fingers tend to be convenient).

A March article from NaturalNews.com goes so far as to instruct parents to lie to Child Protective Services and say they're giving their children meat and dairy to avoid the harsh judgment that often comes with the lifestyle choice. Misguided vegans have invited negative attention over the years, which may have caused some of this hesitation, and several infant deaths have been associated with uneducated veganism.

In 2007 in Atlanta, two vegan parents were sentenced to life in prison after their son died of malnourishment. They'd been feeding him a diet of soymilk and apple juice. And in April, an 11-month-old baby died after suffering complications from vitamin deficiencies. The parents weren't giving her any solid foods (the mother was vegan and exclusively breastfeeding the child, even though traditional pediatricians and vegan doctors alike recommend introducing solid foods at around six months).

Veganism didn't cause the deaths. A baby fed only cow's milk and apple juice would have also been seriously malnurished. But, these instances highlight the risks of pairing a nutritionally restrictive lifestyle with inadequate education.

Following the Atlanta case, food author and ex-vegan Nina Planck argued in a controversial New York Times op-ed that vegan mothers were irresponsible and that it's not possible to raise a child healthily on a plant-based diet. Many readers, including an expert witness for the prosecution in the Atlanta case, were outraged and wrote to debunk her claims.

Those in favor of veganism argue that for every nutrient found in an omnivore's diet, there's a plant-based equivalent.

"In our culture we learn to associate certain foods with certain nutrients: beef with iron and protein, and cows' milk with calcium," said Tracy Wilson, a restaurant manager living in Washington, D.C., who is also raising two vegan children. "People don’t say, 'Make sure you eat your kale for your calcium.' "

Wilson attributed some negative perceptions of veganism to many Americans' confusion about the nutritional value of various foods.

"It's hard to break down the social prejudice around food and realize that there's a perfectly healthy way to live -- and be pregnant -- while being vegan," Wilson said.

Sure, there's never going to be a "Vegan McDonald's" on every corner, Wilson said, but maintaining a plant-based diet is not as hard as people think. Most of her friends are vegan, and her kids' public charter school even lists vegan as an option on its medical questionnaire right along with food allergies.

Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (and a vegetarian herself) said she's seen an increase in vegan and vegetarian clients in the last five to 10 years and said the trend doesn't concern her. Further, the ADA supports well-planned vegan diets as healthy for infants and toddlers.

"Vegan eating patterns can be healthy for anyone at any stage of life as long as it well-balanced," Sheth said.

She said vegan eaters should be particularly cognizant of iron, calcium, vitamin D and zinc intake, as well as getting enough vitamin B-12. Without proper food planning or supplementation, vegan women's breast milk is at risk of being low in Vitamin B-12, which is important for neurological development.

Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, head of the nutritional committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the health benefits of a vegan diet include lower rates of heart disease, obesity, cholesterol and certain types of cancer. But educating yourself as a parent is key to making the diet work for a child.

"There are advantages, but it has to be done properly," said Bhatia. "If you want to choose a lifestyle there's nothing wrong with it, but don’t make the assumption that you can do it without knowing exactly what you're feeding your child and yourself."

Bhatia suggested that vegan moms consult a nutritionist or registered dietitian to make sure they're aware of what they might be lacking and how to compensate. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit physicians organization that promotes veganism, has guidelines for pregnant vegans and suggestions for how they can get more of these nutrients.

Kristen Suzanne, a blogger and cookbook author living in Arizona, eats a vegan diet, and her 14-month old daughter does as well. She's never heard backlash on her blog from anyone who opposes her lifestyle, and she in part attributes that to the vegan lifestyle becoming more mainstream.

Of course, at 14-months, it's easy to dictate what a child eats. But what about what about when these vegan babies are all grown up?

"I really hope to share my passion for the animals and the earth with her. ... My hope is that she follows that," said Suzanne, who acknowledged there is going to come a point when her daughter will be making her own decisions.

"When she's old enough to go out for dinner with friends, she can chose on her own. I'm not going to say 'You can't be my daughter because you chose chicken.' "

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