More parents are raising their kids as vegans and going the extra mile to ensure they have the right nutrients
When Ms Tan Shel Lin found out she was pregnant in 2009, she decided to go on a vegan diet and raise her son, Maitri, as a vegan too.
"I wanted to do what I thought was best for him. I didn't want to feed him 'poison'," says the 37-year-old housewife, who found out about veganism when she started researching healthy foods while trying for a baby.
She read that the hormones injected into animals to speed up their growth can lead to the release of toxins in their body. She also read about the "often inhumane way" in which the animals are farmed.
Ms Tan is among some parents here who are raising their children as vegans, for health and ethical reasons.
Vegans exclude from their diet all animal products including eggs and dairy products. This has led to claims that they suffer from deficiencies in a range of vitamins such as vitamin B12 and from a lack of iron, protein, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids.
Sporadic reports of infant deaths from veganism over the years have further tarnished its reputation.
In 2007, a six-week-old son of a vegan couple in Atlanta in the United States died of malnourishment from a diet of soya milk and apple juice. In 2011, an 11-month-old baby of a French vegan couple who was exclusively breastfed, died after suffering complications from vitamin deficiencies.
Dr Han Wee Meng, senior principal dietitian at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, says a vegan diet might pose nutritional risks for babies and growing children. For instance, they may be deficient in iron. She says there are good plant sources of iron, but vegans need to take more iron than non-vegetarians because the iron from plant food is available in smaller amounts and is not as well absorbed as that from animal food. Iron-deficiency anaemia can lead to growth and neuro-developmental delays.
Another concern for vegan children is vitamin B12, which is important for the development of the brain and nervous system, and is found primarily in animal products. Ms Lynette Goh, senior dietitian from the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics, says it is important to ensure that children get this vitamin through fortified foods or a vitamin supplement.
But she adds that a vegan diet can be a healthy one if meals are properly planned to ensure the child has the right combination of nutrients.
The advantage of being on a vegan diet is that people tend to eat more fruit and vegetables - which is associated with a lower risk of cancer and heart disease - to replace the nutrients they miss from not eating animal products.
Vegan parents say they take pains to ensure their children have the necessary nutrients.
Mr Clarence Tan, 48, president of the Vegetarian Society (Singapore), and his wife, who have been vegans for about five years, refer to authoritative websites such as veganhealth.org.
He says both their children have met or even exceeded their developmental milestones. Daughter Julia, now seven months, is fully breastfed, while two-year-old son Jude eats what they eat - "a healthy plant-based diet supplemented with vitamin B12 and algae-derived DHA, a source of omega-3 fatty acids".
Freelance writer and baker Halimah IIavarasi, 34, a vegan of five years, draws up a weekly meal plan to ensure that her 17-month-old son Akshel has all the necessary nutrients. She gives him plant proteins such as quinoa and amaranth which, like animal proteins, contain the full range of essential amino acids.
Although Akshel has met the developmental milestones, she also feeds him daily algae-based DHA supplement and vegan multivitamins "to be on the safe side".
But vegan parents admit that one of the bigger challenges would be when kids grow up and start to attend parties and question why they cannot have the birthday cake, and when they go to school and face peer pressure to eat meat.
To pre-empt this problem, Mr Tan, who is a freelance photographer, and his wife, a 34-year-old communications specialist, say they plan to give their children "delicious home-packed meals for school and vegan cakes and ice cream for parties, so they won't feel left out".
Ms Ilavarasi, who runs a blog called Evolving Parenthood, says she is already looking for more vegan and vegetarian playmates for her son so that he can have a strong social circle to support him in his vegan lifestyle.
One vegan parent, however, has decided her child's relationships with friends and family are more important than diet.
Housewife Ms Tan says when her son turned three and started to take part in birthday celebrations with his cousins and friends, she allowed him to take chocolate and cakes so that he would not feel left out.
Nowadays, she also allows him to eat fish whenever he goes out with her parents once or twice a month, as they are worried that their grandson is not having enough nutrients.
She says: "Family harmony and socialising with friends are important to me. So I am willing to compromise as long as his diet is still largely vegetarian."
Parents of vegan children may also face another set of challenges when their children become teenagers and start to eat more meals away from home.
Dietitian Ms Goh says teenagers, whether vegan or not, who do not know how to plan their meals, can fall into the trap of eating a diet that is not healthy.
But "being vegetarian or vegan could mean loading up on unhealthy junk food to fill their stomachs when there are not enough essential nutrients", she adds. Commercial vegan or vegetarian food can be very high in fat as they are often deep-fried or cooked with a lot of oil.
Ms IIavarasi, who is aware of this, says she will teach her son the importance of nutrition and eating right. "I'll also ensure he has a supply of healthy snacks such as fruits, nuts and protein bars with him at all times."
Chocolate and ice cream alternatives
Housewife Doreen Lim packs home-cooked food for her two children to take to school as their schools do not sell vegetarian or vegan food. Her son, Nicholas, now 18, is doing a diploma in business management at a private school, while her daughter, Gloria, 17, is studying desktop publishing and design at Assumption Pathway School.
Mrs Lim and her husband Paul, 56, a retail sales executive, raised their children as vegetarians for health and ethical reasons. About five years ago, they decided to turn vegans because they realised that there was also cruelty involved in the production of dairy products. She says: "It was not that difficult as we were not really into eggs or fresh milk."
But Nicholas loves chocolates and Gloria, ice cream. To satisfy their cravings, Mrs Lim found alternatives in chocolates made without milk, popsicles and soya ice cream.
She says: "They'd ask me for chocolate or ice cream and I would explain why we should not eat them. They understood and stopped asking after a few years." She also taught them how to read ingredients on labels to know what they should not take.
Her children's friends were initially curious about their choice of diet, but have got used to it. Says Nicholas: "I join my friends at fast food restaurants, but I'd buy a drink while they have burgers and fries."
They do not eat fries because they are worried that it might be flavoured with non-vegan seasoning.
Gloria says her friends are so supportive that they would sometimes join her for a vegan meal.
In the last couple of years, the teenagers are eating out more often as they hang out with their friends. Mrs Lim is not worried that they would stray from a vegan diet because there are more vegan choices available at food outlets. Thanks to vegan food, she says her children have always been in good health and "do not fall sick easily".
But she wishes that her children, who have always been on the chubby side, would exercise more and spend less time on the computer or in front of the TV set. "Their health would be even better then," she adds.
This article was first published on Dec 28, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.