Alicia Silverstone has been an outspoken advocate for veganism for years, even writing a book in 2011 called The Kind Diet that explains why she chose a plant-based way of eating that doesn’t include meat, fish, seafood, poultry, dairy or eggs. Now, the Clueless actress is discussing her decision to feed her 6-year-old son, Bear Blu, a vegan diet, too.
“Knowing the truth about where our food comes from is just so disturbing to me,” she says in a video for the non-profit Farm Sanctuary’s Compassionate Meals program, as she and Bear eat veggie burgers and kale salad. “Once you see it, there’s no way to go back from that for me.” Bear is also asked what his favorite thing about being a vegan is. His response: “That you don’t have to eat yucky meat.”
Silverstone says it’s easy for her to feed Bear vegan foods, and she regularly makes easy-to-assemble meals like tacos and stir-fries. “I can make all those things based on what’s in the fridge,” she says. “You always have a bean, you always have a whole grain.” Silverstone says being vegan has “turned me into a health nut because you feel so good, you feel so different,” adding, “being able to do something that is good for the Earth, good for the animals, and good for you all at the same time seems like such a no-brainer. It’s like the biggest ‘Duh!’”
Although veganism is popular, feeding children a vegan diet is a controversial move.
According to a 2016 Harris Interactive Poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group about 3.7 million American adults identify as vegan. But the decision to put children on a vegan diet frequently comes under fire.
A law proposed in Italy in 2016 would make it illegal for parents to put their children on a vegan diet, which lawmakers referred to as “a diet devoid of elements essential for healthy and balanced growth,” per Reuters. The proposed law came after several high-profile cases in the country involving undernourished children on vegan diets. In one case, a 1-year-old on a vegan diet only weighed as much as a 3-month-old and, in another, a father alleged that his 12-year-old son’s growth was stunted due to a vegan diet chosen by the boy’s mother.
Silverstone has faced criticism in the past for feeding Bear a vegan diet, and she told People in 2014 that her son “loves the food I give him. He’s not being deprived of anything. For him, having amazing fruit is like candy.”
There are mixed messages out there when it comes to kids and vegan diets, and it’s understandable if you’re confused.
Some people claim that children who are raised on a vegan diet won’t get enough nutrients they need to grow into strong adults, while others say it simply encourages healthy eating in children.
So, is it a good idea to feed kids a vegan diet? Ashanti Woods, M.D., a pediatrician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF that it depends. “Children who consume a vegan diet are generally as healthy, if not more healthy, than children who have a ‘normal’ diet,” he says. Dr. Woods points out that there are various lay definitions of vegetarianism and veganism, but pediatricians pay special attention to true vegans, i.e., those who swear off all animal products. “The more restrictions on a diet, the more pediatricians become concerned because these children are at risk for nutritional deficiencies,” he says.
When done properly, vegan diets can be a step up from the “standard American diet,” Dana Simpler, M.D., a primary care practitioner at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF. Dr. Simpler says that people—and children—don’t need animal protein in their diet provided that they’re getting all their important minerals and nutrients.
The key is having a diet that is well thought out, Lauren Fiechtner, M.D., M.P.H., Director of Nutrition at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in the Division of Gastroenterology and Nutrition, tells SELF. “If the diet is well-planned and monitored by a registered dietitian, this can be safe for children,” she says. Worth noting: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that “well-planned” vegetarian and vegan diets are “healthy” for infants and toddlers.
In the long-term, vegetarian and vegan diets have been linked with lower cholesterol levels, a lower risk of heart disease, a lower risk of high blood pressure, and lower risk of type 2 diabetes, Dr. Fiechtner says. They’re also a good way to promote eating enough fruits and vegetables. “In the United States, most children do not meet their goal intake of five servings of fruits or vegetables per day, and so this could also be a benefit,” she says.
There are also other potential benefits. Lauren Blake, an R.D. at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF that vegetarian and vegan teens typically eat more fiber, iron, folate, vitamin A, and vitamin C than their meat-eating counterparts. They also tend to eat fewer sweets, fast foods, and salty snacks.
Of course, there’s a right and wrong way to do a vegan diet.
It can even be hard for adults who are in complete control of their diets and understand potential vegan pitfalls to get all the nutrients they need, much less for kids. But creating a well-rounded vegan diet is especially important when it comes to children, who need certain nutrients to develop as best they can.
This is why Dr. Woods urges parents of his patients who are on a vegan diet to be mindful that their children get enough of nutrients that are particularly easy to miss out on. One is vitamin B12. Low levels of this nutrient can lead to neurologic complications in severe cases, Dr. Woods says. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, parents should make sure vegan children get enough via a supplement or fortified foods like soy beverages, cereals, and meat substitutes.
Another important nutrient to pay attention to on a vegan diet is iron. Getting enough iron is key in warding off anemia, and after 4 to 6 months of age, all vegan infants need an outside source of this nutrient. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends iron-fortified cereals and supplements to meet this need.
Since veganism cuts out milk and dairy foods, children on a vegan diet may also need outside supplementation for calcium, which is essential for strong bones and teeth as they grow.
Dr. Fiechtner points out that vegan diets are also low in omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in fish or eggs. Failure to have enough of these fatty acids has been linked to poor cardiovascular health, as well as issues with eye and brain development—again, very important factors for children’s healthy growth and development. To meet the potential gaps in a vegan child’s diet, Dr. Simpler recommends vitamin supplementation.
Children on a vegan diet are also at risk of not taking in enough daily calories, which is why Dr. Woods recommends that vegan children eat three snacks a day in addition to three meals a day.
Overall, experts say it’s fine to raise children on a vegan diet, provided you’re mindful that they’re getting everything they need and talk with an expert to make sure the diet is well-rounded. Without this important guidance, it’s all too easy to feed children a vegan diet that skimps on important nutrients they need. “It just takes an effort,” Dr. Woods says. If you have questions about putting your child on a vegan diet, get in touch with their pediatrician or a registered dietitian who can help steer you in the right direction.