Vegan Diet for Kids: A Good Idea?

This morning on the Today Show Matt Lauer hosted a segment on whether it’s healthy to put your kids on a vegan diet. The catalyst was the new children’s book Vegan Is Love, which is due out on April 24, and covers clothing choices and animal testing as well as following a vegan diet (no milk, cheese, eggs, meat, or fish). It’s a controversial look at veganism from Ruby Roth, who became vegan as an adult, and authored Why We Don’t Eat Animals in 2009.

Vegan Is Love is ruffling feathers because it includes violent images of animals being slaughtered and illustrations of wounded animals used in animal testing, as well as strong language about what it means to be vegan. “All animals raised for meat and dairy are captured and killed in the end,” Roth writes. “Their deaths are violent and sad. As vegans we do not bring the pain and suffering of any animal into our happy, healthy bodies.”

Roth’s 7-year-old stepdaughter diet Akira follows a strict vegan diet. When her classmates are indulging in a treat at school, Akira asks whether it’s vegan, and if it’s not, she declines to eat it. She says that her favorite food is kale.

On this morning’s Today Show segment, nutritionist Heiki Skolnik said that it’s possible from a nutritional standpoint to be a healthy vegan at any age as long as the diet is carefully planned and monitored. But she objected to what she called the book’s “scare tactics.”  “Teaching kids to fear food is not typically a healthy way to approach it,” she explained. Child psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, who joined Skolnik on the show, added that kids could interpret the title as people who aren’t vegan don’t get to feel love or are creating hate or bad feelings.

I have several issues here. For starters, childhood is stressful enough without freaking your kids out about what they eat. A vegan diet can leave a child deficient in certain vitamins and nutrients if it’s not carefully conceived. Furthermore, a 7-year-old should have the ability to explore different types of foods without such rigorous expectations from her parents. She needs to be educated about food and what it means to eat well, so that she can learn how to make smart dietary decisions on her own. Then there’s the social aspect. If you start your child on a vegan diet (or any very regimented diet) at a young age, are you setting her up to be ostracized at a time when she should be developing important social skills and learning how to deal with others?

I’m thinking about experimenting with vegetarianism, maybe even veganism, myself this summer–but I will not be putting Mason on any kind of special diet. (In the wake of my breast cancer scare, I’m re-evaluating various aspects of my life, including my diet.) I’ll be happy to educate Mason about alternate eating styles as he gets older, but right now he is too young for me to eliminate entire food groups from his diet.

What do you think?

Photo: Spinach via Julija Sapic via Shutterstock.com

Advertisements

Getting Sneaky With Veggies & Fruits

I don’t believe in “hiding” veggies and fruits to get Mason to eat them, but I recently made an exception. I found myself with 300+ ounces of homemade puree–and a toddler who wouldn’t eat any of it (with the exception of the applesauce), presumably because it was the food I fed to him when he was a baby. These days, it’s all about eating what we eat with his own spoon. So I had to be a little deceptive to avoid wasting a lot of fresh, nutritious food.

My puree bender wasn’t out of boredom or nostalgia–it was for work. I was writing a feature article for American Baby magazine (a sister publication of Parents), and part of the assignment involved some serious baby food recipe testing. By the time I was finished, I had pureed 12 fruits and veggies in about a week.

My biggest challenge was where to store the stuff. There was no way it would all fit in my freezer, so I gave about half of the puree away to local moms. It was so satisfying that my efforts would benefit my son and his little friends. Maybe I should start my own business. (More on that another time.)

Even after the giveaways, we have plenty of puree left, so I’ve been mixing it into some of Mason’s faves to give him extra vitamins and minerals. Both carrot and butternut squash purees blend beautifully with tomato sauce. Blueberry and plum purees add a fresh twist to applesauce. And I can change up his yogurt several different ways: butternut squash and peach, green bean and pear, peas and curry powder, applesauce and banana, and blueberry and pear (see the aftermath of this last combo in the photo, above!).

My plan has been working out pretty well. Mason’s been none the wiser, and I’m psyched he’s getting more vitamins. Maybe I should be a little sneakier while we’re dealing with this finicky one-year-old stage.

Do you hide veggies and fruits in your tot’s diet? Or, do you have another trick for encouraging him/her to eat  healthfully?

Mom Who Forced Her 7-Year-Old to Diet Should Be Arrested

I was horrified when I heard that a mother put her seven-year-old daughter on a diet.  Then I found out that Vogue paid Dara-Lynn Weiss to write an essay for its current issue about the Weight Watchers-style diet that she forced upon her child, and I was absolutely appalled, flabbergasted, disgusted. Honestly, there are no words to adequately express my horror.

In her essay, the Manhattan socialite writes about the unconscionable actions that she took to slim down her daughter Bea once she noticed she “had grown fat,” including depriving her little girl of dinner and berating her when she ate junk food. There are also images of her and Bea modeling in the magazine–just one of the “rewards” that Bea got after spending a year on the diet and losing 16 pounds. (She also received new dresses and a feather hair extension.) The warped message: Thin equals beauty and privilege, fat equals ugly and unworthy. I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely not a message I’d ever want to give to my kid.

Not surprisingly, Weiss writes that she has a history of struggling with her own body image, and I agree with this assertion by Katie J.M. Baker of Jezebel: “Weiss was projecting her hatred of her own body onto her child throughout her year-long diet.” Only that kind of self-loathing could motivate you to treat your daughter this way–and then fail to recognize (or care) how devastating it would be for her to have to relive it through an article in a very popular national magazine. Imagine having your peers read this kind of thing about you; Bea’s classmates might be too young to really get it now, but this story will haunt Bea through high school.

The editors who commissioned this manuscript, as well as the people who gave Weiss a book deal because of it–that’s right, a book deal–should be fired. And this “mom” needs to be arrested.

I’m not making light of childhood obesity; it’s an epidemic in this country that afflicts 17 percent of our children, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and we can’t ignore it. But this mother’s horrific actions are not an appropriate solution. Starving your child and therefore depriving her of the nutrients that she needs to grow is child abuse. Why not teach her how to eat healthfully instead? And to be active as part of a healthy lifestyle?

In fact, I don’t believe Weiss’ motivations had anything to do with Bea’s health. Instead she strikes me as one of those appalling parents who view their children as accessories that can enhance their own image, sort of like the latest Birkin bag. In this case, Weiss molded Bea into a shiny accessory that was fit for the pages of Vogue, and I’m afraid Bea will pay for her mother’s selfishness for the rest of her life.

Weiss met her own goals, but at what cost to Bea’s mental health, self-confidence, and general perception of right and wrong? As Weiss writes in her essay: “When I ask her if she likes how she looks now, if she’s proud of what she’s accomplished, she says yes. Even so, the person she used to be still weighs on her. Tears of pain fill her eyes as she reflects on her yearlong journey. “That’s still me,” she says of her former self. “I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.”

I wish I could hold Bea and rock her. I’d tell her that being a good person is so much more important than modeling a skirt in Vogue, and then I’d pray that she believed me despite her toxic upbringing.

Photo: Girl on a scale via Tyurina Elena/Shutterstock

Should Sugar Be Regulated As a Toxin? And What About Artificial Sweeteners?

I’m passionate about mindful eating, particularly since I’ve become a mom, so I try to stay on top of the latest news about what we eat and drink. Sugar and artificial sweeteners come up a lot–after all, these substances can adversely affect our children’s health (and ours), yet so many of us consume them without a second thought. Two recent reports about sugar and artificial sweeteners came my way this morning, and I think both offer important information.

Let’s start with the report about sugar. According to a LiveScience.com report: Sugar and other sweeteners are, in fact, so toxic to the human body that they should be regulated as strictly as alcohol by governments worldwide, according to a commentary in the current issue of the journal Nature by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

These researchers propose regulations such as taxing all foods and drinks that include added sugar, banning sales in or near schools and placing age limits on purchases, according to the report. They make a pretty convincing case that, as noted in the report, “added sugar–or, more specifically, sucrose, an even mix of glucose and fructose found in high-fructose corn syrup and in table sugar made from sugar cane and sugar beets–has been as detrimental to society as alcohol and tobacco.”

I love the idea of tougher regulations on sugar, particularly since, as writer Christopher Wanjek points out, it’s been proven to increase your blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as your risk for liver failure, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. These regulations would affect me, too–sugary drinks are my downfall. As I write this blog post I’m sipping on a (sugary) caramel latte, and it’s absolutely delish.

But while we’re at it, why stop with sugar?

I also vote for controls on artificial sweeteners and products that contain artificial sweeteners. I try to avoid artificial sweeteners–and I don’t give Mason anything with artificial sweetener–but when I really need an Orange Crush or a Cherry Coke, the diet option sometimes wins out. As a busy working mom, I don’t have the luxury of my pre-preggo personal training sessions at the gym, and I worry about getting fat. Turns out my vanity, and perhaps even yours, could put us at greater risk for cardiac problems–and our logic appears to be wrong about diet soda keeping the pounds at bay, anyway.

A new study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine shows that drinking diet soda every day is linked with a higher risk of stroke and heart attack, according to a report published yesterday in The Huffington Post. (Researchers did not find the same risk with people who drank diet soda more occasionally, between six a week and once a month.) Why do some people drink so much diet soda? According to Health.com, the explanation is really quite simple:

Although diet soda clearly isn’t as addictive as a drug like nicotine, experts say the rituals that surround diet soda and the artificial sweeteners it contains can make some people psychologically — and even physically — dependent on it in ways that mimic more serious addictions. And unlike sugared soda, which will make you gain weight if you drink too much of it, zero-calorie soda doesn’t seem to have an immediate downside that prevents people from overindulging.

However, according to HuffPo, a study presented at the American Diabetes Association meeting showed that drinking diet soda is linked with having a wider waistline. So much for that diet soda = skinny waist logic. In a statement, study researcher Helen P. Hazuda, Ph.D., a professor and chief of clinical epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio’s School of Medicine, says: “Data from this and other prospective studies suggest that the promotion of diet sodas and artificial sweeteners as healthy alternatives may be ill-advised. They may be free of calories but not of consequences.”

Thoughts? Share them here!

Photos: Shutterstock, area381 (sugar); Shutterstock, ER_09 (soda)

Healthier Chicken Fingers Your Toddler Will Love

My little precious has a love-hate relationship with chicken. Sometimes he gobbles it up, especially if I serve it with a dipping sauce, other times he takes one bite and tosses the rest from his tray. As alternatives to roast chicken, I feed him chicken-apple soup and organic chicken-apple sausage. But I’ve been getting bored with these go-to chicken dinners, and I’m sure Mason is too, so I’ve been looking for a new kid-friendly, mom-approved chicken recipe to spice things up. A couple of weeks ago at a birthday party, I found just the recipe. We were celebrating Mason’s friend Lina’s first birthday and her mom, Elif (one of the LIC Mamas), served homemade chicken fingers for the kids–and they were a hit. Golden brown and crisp on the outside, and juicy on the inside, the chicken looked and smelled so delish even the adults were eating it up. Elif was sweet enough to share the recipe with me, so I made the chicken tonight for Mason’s dinner (it took about 10 minutes) and served it with steamed corn and applesauce. Hope your tot enjoys the chicken fingers, as much as mine does. Do you have a chicken recipe that your tot loves? Share it here!

 

Chicken Fingers

Ingredients

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 egg
Olive oil (enough to keep chicken from burning)

Directions
Cut chicken breasts into strips and set aside. Beat egg in a large bowl. Place bread crumbs on flat plate. Coat chicken with egg and then transfer to bread crumbs. Heat olive oil in large skillet. Make sure oil is very hot. Slowly place the coated strips in oil until brown, turn over, brown other side. Remove from pan and lay chicken strips on paper towel to soak up any excess oil. Serve immediately.

NOTE: I call this chicken fingers recipes healthier because it’s not deep-fried and it uses heart-healthy olive oil. You can also skip most of the olive oil by spraying (or brushing) a baking dish with olive oil and baking the chicken fingers on 350 for about 25 minutes (or until center is no longer pink); broil the last five for a crispier texture on the outside.

Top photo by Elif Memisoglu

Project Weight Gain: We Did It!

Our 6 weeks were up. We had to take Mason to the pediatrician’s office yesterday afternoon for his weigh-in, even though it was the last place any of us wanted to be on our day off. Would we finally be on track with this whole underweight issue, or would we be going straight from the doctor’s office to the lab for testing? I was so nervous I felt sick. I couldn’t bear for anything to be wrong with Bug.

The nurse weighed him, and, we did it! We met our goal of increasing Mason’s weight just enough to get him back on the growth curve, and I’m very proud to say we did it in a healthful way (details below). He gained 1 pound and 13 ounces in 6 weeks; to put that in perspective, Bug gained just l pound between his 12-month and 15-month check-ups. He’s still in the bottom percentile for his weight, but he’s back on an upward growth curve, which was our ultimate goal.

Mason’s pediatrician was thrilled (“This is the kind of appointment I like to have!”), and, best of all, said he “wasn’t worried at all” about any underlying health problems. He explained that he needed to see whether Mason could gain an appropriate amount of weight if we increased his caloric intake. If Bug hadn’t been able to gain weight then it would have been a strong indication that something was wrong. Sound familiar? That’s because Richard Rende, Parent.com’s resident expert in child health and development studies, totally called it when he re-framed the situation for me a few weeks ago.

I feel so blessed. I’ve tried to put my fears into perspective–after all, skinniness runs in both our families–but the anxiety of Mason’s impeding weigh-in, and the possibility of our doctor discovering that Mason had a serious health problem, got to me last Thursday night and continued to nag me throughout the weekend. By the time our appointment rolled around yesterday, I was both afraid of what I might hear and desperate to get it over with. Now that we know that it was just a matter of giving Mason more calories, I’ll work to keep Mason’s caloric intake up in a healthful way. And by “up,” I mean just enough to keep up with the curve, I’m not trying to turn him into a sumo wrestler or anything like that.

Ironically, I had trouble keeping weight on when I was pregnant, despite the fact that I ate constantly. I’m convinced Mason has hollow legs. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the next one, if I’m lucky enough to have a second child one day.

The back story, in case you missed it:

At Mason’s 15-month check-up, our pediatrician told me that I needed to do “everything in my power” to fatten Mason up. (Mason’s tall–he’s in the 75th percentile for height–but he had completely fallen off charts for his weight.) We were to come in six weeks later and if Mason hadn’t gained enough weight then he was going to be tested for Celiac and the like. I silently freaked out–What if he’s really sick? I also felt bitter about the irony of having to fatten my kid up in a society where childhood obesity is a major problem. After all, as I said, skinniness is in Mason’s genetics..

Then I pulled myself together and got to work.

I put the extra weight on Mason by increasing his starch intake overall, with fruit-filled quick breads and whole-wheat pasta. I also added more healthful fats (a few drops of olive oil to sauces and extra avocado), as our pediatrician had recommended. I still made sure that Bug got a fruit and veggie with every meal, and I still served him lean chicken and beef as well as beans and lentils. And although I believe in occasional splurges, we kept the indulgences in check. He ate the same number of treats that he did before we were tasked with helping him gain weight. For me, it’s not just about weight, it’s about overall health. Diabetes and heart disease runs in Chris’ family and cancer runs in mine, and I believe that diet really does make a difference when it comes to these diseases. I refused to fill him out with sugary, fatty foods just to get him on some growth chart. Fortunately, it all worked out.

I’m sure lots of you have met exciting goals lately. Dish here!

Did Your Pregnancy Cravings Influence Your Child's Eating Habits?

UPDATE 1/18/12: A friend sent me this photo last night, taken five days before Mason was born. We were mini golfing and, in the middle of the game, I just had to have a giant rice krispie treat–one of my pregnancy cravings–from a nearby coffee shop.

Last night a very pregnant Jessica Simpson told Extra correspondent Mario Lopez that she was craving “the stuff she ate as a kid,” including mac ‘n’ cheese from a box, pop tarts, and Cap’n Crunch cereal. Ugh, how can she eat that junk? I thought. Then I flashed back to my pregnancy and remembered that while I ate very healthfully most of the time, I enjoyed my share of indulgences, too. Hold that judgement, sister.  There was the mid-morning dish of ice cream every day at work for the last four weeks of my pregnancy, not to mention giant rice krispie treats, globs of cream cheese on gluten-free pretzels, and spoonfuls of peanut butter directly from the jar. Mason’s had the good stuff I ate, including lots of fresh veggies, fruits, chicken, and salmon, as well as the cream cheese and the peanut butter, and he’s a fan of it all. While he’s gotten picky about when he will and will not eat specific foods, and his preferences seem to change by the minute, we’ve been blessed with a child who will eat a range of different foods and spices.

But did my morning strawberry-banana smoothies translate to Mason’s love of these fruits? After all, they’re both pretty popular. Is he destined to have an ice cream addiction because I did? I guess we’ll have to see (my 16-month-old rarely eats ice cream). Will he eat spoonfuls of peanut butter directly from the jar, too? Probably, but don’t lots of people? Does he like roast chicken, lobster, and grilled salmon because I did? It’s hard to say….

Curious, I Goggled the topic. There were lots of old wives tales, of course, but then I stumbled across a news report on a related study, which was published by NPR last August: “Research shows that what a woman eats during pregnancy not only nourishes her baby in the womb, but may shape food preferences later in life.” While the study’s results were not definitive, a connection between a mother-to-be’s eating habits and her baby’s preferences does make sense. After all, fetuses drink amniotic fluid, which is flavored by the foods and beverages their mother consumes. Julie Mennella, who studies taste in infants at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, adds that there isn’t a single flavor they have found that doesn’t show up in utero, according to the report. Makes sense to me–I’ll buy the theory that what I ate during my pregnancy did shape Mason’s eating habits, at least somewhat. What do you think? Does your baby or toddler enjoy the foods you craved most during your pregnancy?