Children’s books aren’t usually known for being controversial, but a new book about kids and veganism has touched off a storm of debate about everything from hunger to animal cruelty to large-scale farming and what it means for the choices children make about what they eat.
Disclosure here: I haven’t yet read “Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action,” which came out last week, although I’ve read some excerpts and watched the promotional video. The author and illustrator, Ruby Roth, previously published a similar book, “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals.”
Written for ages 6 and up, “Vegan Is Love” is one of the first books to outline the vegan lifestyle and philosophy for children and show them how they can put it into practice. Some sample suggestions: “Ask your favorite grocery and clothing stores to carry more vegan products.” “Learn some vegan recipes (for food or even soaps and lotions) and share them with family, friends, and teachers.”
Roth says in a news release that she doesn’t mind the controversy that has erupted over the book. “It’s high time we engage youths in topics previously reserved for adults – democracy, supply and demand, and engaging ourselves in the public realm,” she says. “Fast food companies don’t think your kids are too young to be marketed to, agribusiness uses the word ‘sustainable’ to talk about GMOs, and marine parks and zoos want kids to believe they are conservationists. If you don’t educate your kids, someone else will.”
This isn’t how the critics see it, however, and many of them have been quite vocal about the book’s message. Some say the topic is inappropriate for children. Others point to some of the book’s illustrations, which include images of animals in crowded cages, and worry that children will be disturbed and upset.
“The main problem that I have with this book is that children are impressionable, and this is too sensitive of a topic to have a child read this book,” wrote Nicole German, a registered dietitian from Atlanta, on her blog. “It could easily scare a young child into eating vegan, and without proper guidance that child could become malnourished.”
I’m going to skip over the issues raised in the book about factory farming, animal testing and zoos, and focus instead on the nutritional concept of children and veganism: namely, whether it’s healthful or desirable for children to pursue a vegan diet.
As it turns out, the answer is yes – although nutrition experts caution that parents need to pay close attention to whether their child’s vegan menu is adequate and well balanced.
When a group of British researchers reviewed the pros and cons of vegetarian diets for children back in 1998, they concluded that these are no more likely to be bad for children’s growth and development than an omnivorous diet. They found that vegan diets are “more likely to be associated with malnutrition, especially if the diets are the result of authoritarian dogma.” But they also note that the main challenges to children’s eating habits are similar regardless of diet: lack of variety, lack of physical activity and too much reliance on packaged convenience foods.
The position of the American Dietetic Association is that “well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”
This doesn’t necessarily help resolve the many other, and perhaps more thorny, questions surrounding children and veganism. When are children old enough to start making deliberate choices about the food they eat? How should omnivorous parents react if their child announces he or she wants to become a vegan? Inasmuch as food habits often contain an emotional component, how do we discuss them in a way that keeps the emotions to a minimum?
For all the commotion about childhood obesity and children’s food habits, it’s intriguing that a little book about veganism would raise such a ruckus. Maybe it’ll get the conversation going in a new direction.