Special Segment: Growing Up Vegan

February 27, 2012 (CHICAGO)

"Our menu is never bland, it's never boring," said Gabrielle Walker-Aguilar. "My kids are healthy, and they're happy."

Walker-Aguilar is raising her three kids, including her 2-year-old, on a primarily vegan diet.

Vegans eat a plant-based diet full of vegetables, nuts and beans. They are stricter than vegetarians. In addition to not eating meat, vegans don't eat anything with animal origins such as dairy products or eggs.

Ten-year-old Ulai Logan is proud to be a vegan.

"Some people think it's nasty and it's only green food," said Logan. "I say it's good for you."

"I think a lot of time the attitude is that we're extremists and that we're no fun," said Marla Rose, an Oak Park mom who started the Chicago Vegan Family Network as a way for her son to meet other vegan kids. Parents share tips online and as many as 40 families meet up monthly for a pot-luck dinner.

"The most important thing was to create a community for families raising vegan children and for vegan children themselves," said Rose.

As the vegan diet gains popularity, a debate is heating up with some editorials and blog posts warning vegan parents could be harming or even killing their kids. Others go so far as to tell parents to hide the fact that they're raising vegan kids so state authorities don't take them away.

"I think there's a lot of alarmists out there about everything, and I think with proper balance it can work out," said Lara Field, pediatric dietitian, Comer Children's Hospital.

Field says parents thinking about trying a vegan diet for their kids need to carefully plan their meals.

"In a natural sense, a vegan diet is a wonderful choice," said Field. "However, I think there's a lot of potential nutrient deficiencies or too much of some products that could be consumed."

On Chicago's North Side, the store Be By Baby carries vegan eco-friendly baby gear that doesn't use animal products such as wool or leather.

"We're trying to make it better for the babies, but we're also trying to make it better for the earth," said Courtney Baros, co-owner.

Baros says her kids are thriving in her vegan home.

"Certainly there are people who have contradictory views to how I raise my children," she said. "I know my children are healthy, the proof is in the pudding, they're healthy, they're happy."

Dietitians stress that vegan families should take supplements for nutrients such as vitamin B-12 that are found only in animal products. But they say well-planned vegan diets are healthy for infants and toddlers.

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