Most adult vegans will testify that the question they hear most often is the classic, ‘where do you get your protein’. When it comes to discussing vegan kids though, the number one query on everyone’s lips is a (generally sceptical) ‘but where do vegan children get their calcium?’
I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t convinced either – to start with – and I’ve always been a bit paranoid about the kids’ calcium intake. Back in my pre-vegan days I remember the frustration I felt when I couldn’t get Alex to drink his beaker of cow’s milk. Used to my breast milk, but no longer interested in it, he was not a fan of the dairy alternative. I panicked and tried everything I could think of. Chocolate milk, strawberry milk, warm milk, ice cold milk, milky rice pudding; he was having none of it! Sensible boy. So I plied him with yogurt and cheese for every meal. Not once did it occur to me to research alternative ways to provide him with calcium.
So why this obsession with dairy?
Well, you’re probably aware that Calcium is a pretty key mineral, particularly for children. Along with vitamin D, calcium is absolutely vital for growing bones and teeth.
But the problem is that society wrongly dictates that the best or even the only way to get sufficient calcium is to drink cow’s milk. How many of us were forced to drink a carton of cow’s milk during the morning break at school? How many TV commercials are for dairy products and geared towards children? How many commercials advertise the supposed benefits of cow’s milk formula for infants? When I took Alex to a baby weaning class, the recipes and advice relied heavily on the premise that kids need dairy to grow properly. Most perverse, is the overriding message that cow’s milk is a natural product and as such, must be a healthy addition to your child’s diet.
The absurdity of this first struck me when I was breastfeeding my second child in public. Oh the looks I got while feeding baby Fin in a restaurant. To see the expressions of disproval on some of the faces, you would have thought that I’d whipped my boobies out, stuck some tassels to them and started gyrating on the table. I guarantee that these same people wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if I had jammed a bottle of cow’s milk in junior’s mouth. This got me thinking. Why, as a society, do we value the milk of another species over our own? I wonder how people would react if I held my little cherub under a cow and let him suckle. You can’t get cow’s milk fresher than that after all!
With that image in mind, how natural does cow’s milk seem now?
The healthier alternative to dairy
So if cow’s milk is unnatural, unethical and unhealthy, what option does that leave a vegan mother? Do we need to continue nursing our children well into their teen years? Well, some people may be into that, but it’s not for me! And while the human body does still need calcium for all stages of life, milk is not required after a certain age. In fact, as we grow we actually lose the ability to process lactose which is why about 70% of the population has problems digesting cow’s milk.
Luckily, for times of doubt there is a wealth of information out there both on the unhealthy qualities of cow’s milk and on feeding children a plant-based diet. Newsflash! The plant kingdom provides all the calcium we need.
Oranges, dried apricots and figs, nuts, sesame seeds, baked beans, green leafy vegetables – all contain calcium. Additionally many products are fortified with calcium and vitamin D (Robin to Calcium’s Batman); plant milks, tofu, soya yogurt, even bread. If our kids regularly consume these products and get plenty of exercise (and if your kids are anything like mine, that won’t be a problem – they never sit still!), their teeth and bones will be just fine!
For more on calcium and bone health in children, I highly recommend you take a look at the PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) Parents’ Guide to Building Better Bones which is full of clear and helpful information on the types of foods to serve, the foods to avoid and more importantly the science behind these choices.
Cover image: Shutterstock. Modification: TVW.