V for vegan
“At first I didn’t know what kale was,” says Alex Franklin, 10. “I thought it was a decoration.” He’s describing how he and his brother, Dylan, 11, responded about two years ago to the idea of transitioning to a vegan diet from their more standard omnivorous upbringing.
“We had to adjust little by little,” explains Veronika, mother of the two boys. “Everyone I know on a very close basis, they’re not vegan, they’re not even vegetarian. But at the time that we started, my kids, they had all these gastric issues, and I weighed 25 pounds more.”
Veronika explains they made the decision to go vegan together after seeing author, former fireman and pro-triathlete Rip Esselstyn give a presentation on his book, The Engine 2 Diet, in which he describes the positive health effects of his firefighting team switching to a plant-based diet.
Based primarily on whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, grains, seeds, and nuts, a vegan diet is a strict form of vegetarianism that avoids any animal-derived foods, including meat, milk, cheese and eggs. Reasons for switching to a vegan diet vary, from being health or religiously motivated to not wanting to hurt animals or desiring a more environmentally sustainable eating habit. The Franklins say that the change has not been without its challenges.
“At first I didn’t think that we were going to go past 21 days,” Veronika remembers. She recalls being concerned about the health of her boys. “First it was protein intake, then you learn there’s protein in so many things. We took some supplements and vitamins, so I wasn’t too concerned that we would lack vitamins.” Instead, Veronika says there have been other challenges. “Everybody has personal opinions that they feel real strongly about it. Even my mother, when she was visiting, was like, ’What’s almond milk? It’s not real.’”
To meet the rising demand for plant-based foods, grocery store shelves are increasingly carrying alternatives to conventional meat and dairy products. You can find everything from ice cream made from coconut milk to imitation hot dogs made from wheat gluten to pizzas baked with ’cheese’ made from tapioca.
Another Reno family has brought their son up with a vegan diet since birth. Suzanne and Brendan Lewis made the decision for their son, Ronán, to have a plant-based upbringing.
Suzanne, who has a master’s degree in biology and teaches at Truckee Meadows Community College, says, “We didn’t know any kids who we could see and say, ’OK, that child is doing well.’ Everything I read made it sound like it was going to be OK, but it was scary. It’s your own child, you don’t want to see anything go wrong.”
“We still had to look at whether or not it was healthy for him,” says Brendan. “If it’s not healthy for him, we aren’t going to do it for him. But he’s obviously growing just fine.”
Ronán sits looking at several Lego books and makes several references to Star Wars. His parents describe his enthusiasm for vegetables.
“He’s been going to a garden camp and they have him picking their own vegetables out of the hoophouse and that’s made a difference,” says Suzanne. “He’ll eat any leafy green now. He’ll just pick up lettuce and shove it in his mouth. There’s a couple vegetables he won’t eat, but overall, he’s pretty good.”
What the Lewises have found more challenging than convincing their son to enjoy vegetables has been their varying experiences at preschools regarding having healthy vegan foods served for lunch. “At one, we had to get a religious note for him not to have dairy, because he’s not allergic to it,” Suzanne says. “The stuff they were providing was not healthy at all, so that school didn’t work for us
There are unexpected challenges. “Birthday parties,” Suzanne says. “Ronán had been invited to a birthday party, and everything was fine; we had the present wrapped and were ready to go. Then, the night before, I suddenly realized, there’s going to be pizza and cake and things like that. I went on the internet, and I looked at what other people had done, and I talked to a few friends with vegan children, and they told me to pack a lunch and to make my child’s favorite treat and bring that. Well, we got there, and the hostess of the party ended up being so considerate and had gotten him his own cupcake. And the birthday girl was lactose intolerant, so there was one vegan pizza. That one had a good ending, but I’m prepared for the next one.”
The Franklin family mentions creating a routine so that Dylan and Alex will have vegan lunches at school. “The school does not provide vegan lunches,” says Veronika. “I always make sure they have their lunch boxes.”
Staples of her boys’ lunches are almond butter and organic strawberry jam sandwiches, hummus with carrots and cucumbers, and homemade juices and smoothies.
Vegan materials and methods of production are now present in everything from clothing to celebrity cookbook lines to tattoo inks. And it’s possible to go on a road trip from Reno and find a vegan soul food diner or donut shop or upscale award-winning restaurants.
“When I first started being vegan, I was lucky if I could find a veggie burger at a restaurant,” Suzanne says.
However, though it may be more accessible today, both families still acknowledge running into hurdles in navigating an environment that in many ways is contrary or challenging to their own choices and habits.
“It’s getting easier, but it takes a little more work,” Brendan says of raising a vegan child.
Of the choice for Ronán to maintain a vegan diet as he grows, Suzanne says, “As he’s gotten older, we’ve switched to putting some of the decisions to him.”
Brendan adds, “It’s his call. Ultimately, we can’t control what he eats. And I think it would be silly to try. We just put that power with him.”
Of the Franklins’ foray into veganism, now going into its third year, Veronika says, “The difficult part was not giving up meat and dairy; the difficult part was learning new things.”
Though Dylan admits he still doesn’t like eggplant or mushrooms, he sums up his feelings, “At first I didn’t know what ’vegan’ was. I thought I would try it out and if I didn’t like it I could always go back. But I just stayed on.”
“It’s like any diet,” says Suzanne. “You want to do your research. You don’t want to not understand nutrition and feed your kids all fast food.”