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Raising healthy kids on plant-based diet? Possible, says mum of vegan baby

SINGAPORE – It took six-and-a-half-year-old Ahaana Majumder Govil just a day to give up her favourite foods of cheese and yoghurt when her parents switched to a vegan diet in 2016.

Raising healthy kids on plant-based diet? Possible, says mum of vegan baby

Ms Ambaree Majumder, 37, together with her children Ahaana and Aarish, who are all on vegan diets.

SINGAPORE – It took six-and-a-half-year-old Ahaana Majumder Govil just a day to give up her favourite foods of cheese and yoghurt when her parents switched to a vegan diet in 2016.

Around four years old at the time, Ahaana had learnt that calves are taken away from their mothers shortly after birth to ensure that dairy cows have a continuous milk supply for the market.

“When I told my daughter that I won’t be eating those foods anymore, she was shocked and asked why. I asked her – using child-friendly language – how she would feel if she was taken away from me and my milk. She immediately related to it and knew how awful it would be,” said Ms Ambaree Majumder, 37, a business analyst.

“We also shared with her how meat and dairy consumption is harming the planet. She understood and took just one day (to drop meat products from her diet),” she added.

Ms Ambaree stopped eating meat and seafood 13 years ago for ethical reasons but resolved to drop all animal products in 2016 after learning about their link to various diseases through a documentary. She attributed her recovery from thyroid issues to her vegan diet.

In a new study published this week in medical journal The Lancet on how humans can eat more healthily for themselves and the environment, experts recommended about 14g of red meat intake a day and about 29g of poultry a day.

The average Singaporean consumed more of both types of meat than the amounts recommended, according to statistics by Singapore’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.

More than 820 million people in the world have insufficient food and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and morbidity, the report in The Lancet said.

Food production is the largest cause of global environmental change, it added. Agriculture occupies about 40 per cent of global land, and food production is responsible for up to 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70 per cent of freshwater use.

VEGAN BABY IN THE HOUSE

“As parents, we equip our kids with all sort of skills like swimming, martial arts. I thought that I should also teach my kid how to eat well so that even when I’m no longer there, she will know how to eat food that is good for her,” said Ms Ambaree.

Her 14-month-old son Aarish is currently one of the youngest vegans in Singapore and has never been exposed to animal and dairy products.

Like Ms Ambaree, a small but growing community of Singapore families are raising their children on a plant-based diet.

Registered dietitian Ujjwala Baxi has seen more mothers reaching out for assistance on planning plant-based diets for their children in the last four years. They are mostly those with teenage children on a vegan diet.

Ms Ujjwala, the founder of diet and nutrition counselling company Poshan-Cure Thru Diet, currently sees about five such parents each year.

There are currently no formal statistics on vegan families here, but most of them meet up for events and keep touch through social media channels such as a Whatsapp group, said Mr Michael Broadhead, volunteer coordinator at Animal Allies, an outreach project of the Vegetarian Society Singapore that supports people who are going vegan.

Ms Ambaree, who blogs and conducts talks in schools and corporate and community events to help raise awareness on plant-based eating, is part of a Whatsapp chat group of about 40 people who are either raising vegan children or transitioning towards the veganism.

Ms Ujjwala said an increased sensitivity for animals have led families to adopt the diet.

Easy availability of plant-based alternatives on supermarket shelves and dining scene here have also made it easier for people to adopt or try the diet, she said.

Grand Hyatt Singapore hotel debuted Beyond Burger’s plant-based patties last year and went on to serve other plant-based proteins such as vegan eggs (made from mung beans) and sausages (made of peas, fava beans, rice, beet, and coconut oil).

All three vegan options are available the hotel’s poolside restaurant Oasis, which the hotel said is popular with families.

ALLAYING CONCERNS

“Compared to the United States and Melbourne (in Australia) for example, there is generally still a lack (of vegan food variety) in restaurants and hawker centres but slowly, it is getting better. We dine out at a couple of vegan restaurants or places offering vegan options because I don’t want us to go vegan at the cost of my kids’ life becoming boring,” said Ms Ambaree.

While her children had no trouble adjusting to a meat and dairy-free diet, her greatest challenge was the lack of understanding from family members.

“It was difficult for my family to understand and accept it when I stopped eating meat 13 years ago. And when we went vegan in 2016, they were even more against it because I was including my child in it,” she said.

“They thought that meat and dairy were essential for a child’s growth and regular functioning, and were very scared (for Ahaana), which I totally understand. The fact that you can get these nutrients from plant-based sources was all new to them.”

To ensure that her children thrive on a plant-based diet, Ms Ambaree enrolled in a plant-based nutrition certification course. It cost around S$1,000 but she said it was worth it.

“It made me very confident of my choice (to switch to a vegan diet), and my child’s paediatrician was also supportive of it,” she said.

Her children have been growing well and this has helped allay her family’s concerns.

Ahaana loves sports and is currently taking gymnastics, martial arts and swimming classes. The children take supplements such as B12 and D vitamins to plug nutritional gaps.

“When family members saw Ahaana growing well and doing well in activities and sports, they were really impressed and convinced I was doing the right thing. With my son, they are surprised to see how much vegetables he eats for his age,” Ms Ambaree said with a laugh.

GET EXPERT ADVICE, CONSIDER SUPPLEMENTS

A common notion is that a plant-based diet may lead to deficiencies in vitamin B12 and iron, which are important nutrients that prevent anaemia and nervous system damage and are naturally found in animal and milk products, said Ms Ujjwala.

However, it is possible to raise healthy children and even babies on a plant-based diet, she said.

“After mother’s milk, weaning babies on plant-based options like fruit purees, lentil soups, vegetable mashups, rice-based porridge and congee can support optimum growth with essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, first-class protein, complex carbohydrates and fatty acids needed for healthy milestones in the growing years,” said Ms Ujjwala.

Pregnant women can also support foetus growth and health on a well-planned plant-based diet, supported by a registered dietitian, she added.

Research (published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2000) has found that vitamin B12 from fortified cereals and dairy products was linked to a better vitamin B12 status than people whose intake came from red meat, poultry and fish, said Ms Ujjwala.

“This led the researchers to suspect that the B12 from meat might be damaged by cooking,” she said.

But paediatrician Anita Menon of Dr Anita’s Kids Clinic has encountered children who failed to thrive and grow as a result of a vegan diet. Some had severe iron deficiency.

Children who are born pre-term or have a low birth weight, as well as those with underlying medical problems should not be on a plant-based diet, she said.

“Babies and children who are raised on very restrictive vegan diets (that excludes meat, fish, dairy and eggs) may have deficient caloric and protein intake, which in turn affects growth and energy levels, as well as deficiencies in Omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamins A, D and B12,” said Dr Menon.

Parents who wish to raise their children on plant-based diet need to ensure they get adequate calories and nutrients for growth and brain development, and consider the use of supplements, she said.

Ms Ujjwala said it is important for parents to be aware that a plant-based diet, like any diet, can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on what they bring to the dinner table and choose to eat.

“One may follow faulty vegan diets if they skip fruit and vegetables and only wish to thrive on carbohydrates like noodles and rice, with little help from beans and legumes. It is at the consumer’s discretion to make the right choices,” she said.

Signs that suggest that a child may not be thriving include poor weight gain and growth, weight loss, lack of energy and frequent infections, said Dr Menon.

Ms Ujjwala advised people transitioning to a plant-based diet to reach out to support groups such as Vegetarian Society Singapore, Animal Allies Singapore and VegThisCity.

Ms Ambaree said parents who wish to get their children started on a vegan diet should educate themselves, make the switch gradually and not force their offspring to take to the diet overnight.

“With my daughter, the change happened overnight but it depends on each child. Also, if you want your child to go on a plant-based diet, you will have to do it too,” she said.

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vegan health

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