Most raw foodists I meet want to know whether or not I would feed my (potential) kids a pure raw vegan diet.
Today I’m giving you my answer.
First, I want to emphasize the fact that I’ve never recommended a 100% raw vegan diet for children.
Although I believe that this type of diet can be successfully implemented with a lot of planning — the risks outweigh the benefits, especially when there are much better, practical and safer alternatives.
Let’s start with a little bit of anecdotal evidence.
Over the 14+ years that I’ve been involved in this field, I’ve met my share of raw food families and raw children.
I would say that the vast majority of people that I’ve met that were themselves following a raw vegan diet were not able to keep their children on a 100% raw vegan diet, for simple practical reasons.
Although most of these children ate a great deal of raw foods, the parents were forced to introduce some cooked foods in the diet, due to the social circumstances with family and friends and sometimes out of sheer fear of deficiencies.
In some rare cases, motivated parents were able to successfully shelter their children from the “cooked” influences of society and managed to raise them on a 100% raw food diet. That usually lasted until the kids themselves, usually between the age of 7 and 12, requested to try cooked foods, out of curiosity or social pressure.
Some of these children were able to follow a raw diet for even longer, but almost all of them (I would say 95%) abandoned it past their teenage years, when they left for the big world and realized that this marginal diet did not fit in completely with the rest of society. However, what we eat in our childhood really shapes our taste buds for life. So all of these children, even after they stopped being raw foodist, seemed to love their fruits and vegetables, and many choose to at least remain vegan or vegetarian.
Most parents that I’ve met did not let their ideology or belief system get in the way of what they thought would be a more rational compromise in modern society.
On the other hand, some of the families that I’ve met really insisted in feeding their children a 100% raw food diet.
In some cases, the children managed to be healthy and grow healthfully. I already told the story of a French Canadian family who ate a 100% raw diet all the way until the children were about 17, but I lost touch with them after that. (You can read my full interview with the mother at: http://www.fredericpatenaude.com/articles/interview-solange.html)
The children grew a little slower than “normal” but ended up reaching above-average height. However, this family was not vegan and used some raw dairy products, but no eggs or meat.
I’ve also met other raw families that did not seem to be successful in raising raw children. The most troublesome symptom I noticed was malnutrition, when children had big bloated bellies, but skinny arms and legs — almost like the poor malnourished African children we’ve all seen on TV.
Other children were hyperactive, always seeking food and stuffing it down their throat, as if it were their last meal they were allowed to eat for a week. They seem to be constantly hungry and asking for food, even though they seemed to be eating up to 12 times a day.
It saddens me that some parents let some half-baked, unproven ideology get in the way of their precious children’s future and health.
I’ve often said that the raw vegan diet is an experiment. I was willing to undergo that experiment as an adult, and I made many mistakes that cost me my health. I told these experiences in my books The Raw Secrets and Raw Food Controversies, hoping that others wishing to follow a raw vegan diet could learn from my experience and not make the same mistakes.
We adults have the luxury of experimenting with different diets and health programs, but we also get to face the consequences as adults.
Children are in the hands of their parents and must suffer the consequences of their parents’ decisions — even though they have not made the choices themselves, and oftentimes rebelled against them. That is not fair and no parent should use their children as a laboratory to try out different diets that frankly, have never really been proven to work for children.
These children must then face the consequences of their parents’ folly for the rest of their lives. And that makes me mad.
Before we go any further, let’s consider an important fact:
No society in the world has ever lived and raised children on a 100% raw vegan diet — at any point in recorded history. And as far as we know, no society or tribe of humans anywhere on the planet has ever lived on a raw vegan diet as long as homo sapiens, our species, has ever roamed this earth, for over 200,000 years!
If we look at the long history of our species, as far as all archeological evidence can tell us, there’s actually never been a time that any human society has ever lived on a pure raw vegan diet, as long as we’ve been around on this earth!
To go back to our raw food eating days, we have to turn the clock back a lot more than 200,000 years. In fact, we have to go back to the days when we were not even humans — that is our pre-human ancestors. That would probably set us back a few million years, if not between 4 and 6 million years, which is the last time that paleontologists say that a common ancestor to both modern humans and chimpanzees existed.
So let’s make it very clear that the raw food diet is an experiment. It is not a diet that has been proven to have sustained human populations throughout the ages.
On the other hands, millions of people throughout the world have lived on vegetarian diets, so we know that meat is not necessary in the human diet. In many cases, these vegetarians were pretty close to be vegans, and for the past 100 years there have been many vegan families that have successfully raised children on a 100% vegan diet.
Here are the main problems with raising children on a 100% raw vegan diet:
1) Fruits and vegetables are not calorie-dense enough.
People tend to think that what a raw vegan diet is missing is certain minerals and vitamins. So they obsessed over getting a ton of greens in their kid’s diet, or truckloads of slimy seaweed.
But what really matters are the macro-nutrients — the calories! Calories only come from fat, protein and carbohydrates. This turns out to be perfect for adults who need to lose a few pounds, but not so great for children who are growing and need a lot of calories.
Fruits and vegetables are just too low in macro-nutrients (calories) to form the basis of the diet of growing children, who have tiny bodies and great caloric needs for growth. The reason raw food children eat all the time is that they just can’t fit enough raw produce in their tiny stomachs at any one time to get the calories they need.
Some raw foodists who follow a low-fat diet say that the solution to this is to give these children large amounts of fatty foods like avocados, nuts and seeds. Even though these experts ban or severely restrict these items for adults, they claim that in nature, children would be breast-fed up to the age of seven, therefore it would be natural for humans to eat a high-fat diet up to that age, as the fat content of breast milk is around 50% by calories.
While it is true that in many cultures, children are breast-fed up to an age that would be considered improper in Western societies, these children do not only drink breast-milk up to the age of 5 or sometimes 7. Breast milk is critically important for the first 2 years of life, but after that, even in primitive societies, children eat other foods than just breast milk.
What children really need are enough calories to grow. That means enough carbohydrates for energy, and enough protein to grow and build their bodies. Fat also plays an important part because of its concentrated energy, but there is no evidence that children must eat a very high-fat diet in order to grow properly. It’s just easier to get enough calories and proper nutrition if you include high fat items such as nuts, seeds and avocados.
However, nuts and seeds are not as rich in nutrients as we think, if we analyze their nutrients per calorie, compared to cooked potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans and even some whole grains.
Children would be better off having access to a variety of foods — raw and cooked — as they are growing up, instead of relying solely on low-calorie fruits and vegetables and high fat raw foods.
2) The unsupplemented raw vegan diet doesn’t provide critical vitamin B12
I won’t expand too much on that point, but it goes without saying that a B12 supplement is mandatory for both children and pregnant or nursing mother. Every single doctor who promotes a plant-based diet recommends a B12 supplement, especially for young children.
3) Grazing on fruit and nuts all day long can create dental problems.
The issue that I’ve seen with 100% raw children has usually been the same: they eat constantly, all day long, and they are never satisfied.
Children have a tiny stomach, yet need a ton of calories and nutrients to grow. It’s normal that they may need to eat more often than adults, so food in general should not be restricted.
The problem is that in a purely raw food diet, many children are not fundamentally satisfied and are not getting the necessary nutrients they need. Their carbohydrate intake may be too low, as they are instinctively looking for more concentrated foods to give them the calories they need, but are restricted to fatty foods like avocados and nuts.
One unfortunate side effect of this constant grazing is an increased occurrence of dental decay, which I’ve seen quite often in raw vegan children. Every dentist knows that the more often you eat in the day — especially sugary foods — the more likely it is you’re going to suffer from dental decay. Eating constantly never brings the oral environment to an alkaline state, and the constant supply of sugar is feeding the bacteria that cause dental decay.
Can a raw vegan diet provide enough protein for growing children?
Human breast milk is composed (by calories) of 52% fat, 6% protein and 42% carbohydrates.
Cow’s milk, on the other hand, is 19% protein, 52% fat, 29% carbohydrates.
The main difference between the milk of these two species is not the fat content, but the carbohydrate and protein content. Human milk is significantly sweeter and less concentrated in protein.
The reason behind this difference is that humans are supposed to grow over a slow period of time, gradually, while cows must grow quickly. But human milk is still concentrated in fat, as babies need those extra calories.
So can a raw vegan diet provide enough protein for growing children? Quite possibly, as human beings grow over a long period of time and do not need that much protein, unlike cows and other animals that grow very quickly.
But remember that babies who drink breast milk also start eating other foods after just 1 or 2 years of age, and that over time, in all cultures, breast milk becomes more a supplement than the main staple of the diet.
So it would be safe to assume that protein needs of growing children should be a little higher than the 6% content of mother’s milk. To be safe, a few percentage points should be added.
The big problem is when children are not getting the calories they need, they are also not getting the protein they need for proper growth. A diet deficient in total energy will also be deficient in protein, which is not so much a problem for adults who don’t need that much protein, but may be a huge issue for growing children.
A fruit-based diet may also be inadequate in protein as many fruits are lower in protein than even breast milk. For example:
Bananas — 4% protein
Apples — 2% protein
Grapes — 4% protein
Honeydew Melon — 5% protein
Dates — 2% protein
On average, fruits are only 4-5% protein, with some fruits being as low as only 2%. I suspect that a big percentage of the protein content of fruits is actually found in the seeds and hard peels of fruits, that are then analyzed in the process but not usually digested when we eat those foods.
Fruits are also low in minerals, compared to vegetables or even cooked starchy plants. Analyzing the data, I can only come to the conclusion that a fruitarian diet is far from adequate for growing children.
I won’t expand on specific nutrients, which rely on common sense more than anything. Green vegetables are extremely important for their calcium content, but most raw foodists are aware of that.
Vitamin D can be an issue if sun exposure is not adequate, so sometimes a supplement may be advised if children are not consuming any fortified foods like soy milk.
“Pregnancies From Hell”
Food aversions are very common in pregnant women, including those following a raw food diet.
The vast majority of women that I’ve met who were raw foodists when they got pregnant were not able to maintain that diet 100% during pregnancy, simply because they suddenly couldn’t eat most greens and sometimes most fruits.
Why would healthy women suddenly be unable to eat fruits and vegetables when they get pregnant, when they have been living on essentially fruits and vegetables for years prior to pregnancy?
A recent article published in Science Daily sheds light on this mysterious process. According to two Cornell university researchers, “the nausea and vomiting of “morning sickness” experienced by two-thirds of pregnant women is Mother Nature’s way of protecting mothers and fetuses from food-borne illness and also shielding the fetus from chemicals that can deform fetal organs at the most critical time in development.”
Quoting from the article:
“By creating food aversion, NVP (nausea + vomiting during pregnancy — Frederic) also protects against toxins from microorganisms and other teratogenic (fetal organ-deforming) chemicals, Sherman says. “At that same time, in the first trimester of pregnancy, the cells of the tiny embryo are differentiating and starting to form structures. Those developing structures and organ systems — such as arms and legs, eyes and the central nervous system — at this critical stage of a new life could be adversely affected by the teratogenic phytochemicals in some food plants,” Sherman says. These chemicals are secondary compounds that plants make to defend themselves against disease and insects.
Although phytochemicals have no known nutritive function for humans, most people tolerate their presence in food. (Small amounts of these chemicals might even be beneficial because of their antioxidant properties and trace elements.) But during pregnancy, according to the Cornell biologists, women with morning sickness are shielding the developing unborn from the harsh chemicals by vomiting and by learning to avoid certain foods altogether until the fetus develops beyond the most susceptible stage.”
You can read the full article here:
Many raw vegan women that I’ve met could not stand the sight of raw green vegetables, but were able to eat some cooked vegetables during pregnancy. Eating cooked vegetables was undoubtedly better than eating no vegetables at all, which is what they would have to do if they had stayed 100% raw.
Many also could not eat many fruits and even found themselves completely repulsed by them. Yet they craved simple “comfort” foods like potatoes, in addition to unhealthy foods like fried chicken and ice cream.
Most women were wise enough to listen to their bodies and make some serious modifications in their diet during pregnancy.
Others stoically stuck to the raw vegan diet, often with disastrous results. I’ve heard of women who ended up completely depleted after a difficult pregnancy when she could only eat a few types of fruit, because she tried to stay 100% raw no matter what. In the end, she was harming her body by starving and more importantly, her unborn child.
Animal Foods and Raw Vegan Children
Many raw vegan families have recognized the nutritional issues that I brought up, yet remained committed to the idea of eating raw. So they instead choose to introduce some animal products to their family’s diet, the most common ones being eggs and some form of raw dairy products.
Although these animal foods can certainly improve on a deficient raw vegan program for children, a body of scientific evidence shows that they are not necessary for the needs of growing children, on a well balanced, low-fat (or lower-fat, in the case of children) vegan diet with B12 supplementation.
There are very serious issues related to drinking cow’s milk, whether it’s raw or not, and a lot of evidence points to dairy products as a culprit in the incidence of diabetes and certain auto-immune disease, and to the prevalence of these foods in children’s diet. (For more information, read: http://www.nealhendrickson.com/mcdougall/020700puthepancreas.htm)
I personally wouldn’t include dairy products in my children’s diet as I see no reason to do so, although I realize that occasional treats will be hard to avoid in today’s world. But, as long as the rest of the diet is clean and optimized for human nutrition, children will grow healthy and without long-term health problems, many of which can be caused by dairy products in the human diet.
Certainly children can get all the nutrition they need from plant foods and mother’s milk, and some selected supplements.
So if I wouldn’t feed my children a pure, 100% raw vegan diet, what would I do instead?
1) The basis of the diet would remain fruits and vegetables, along with cooked starchy vegetables like potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, etc.
2) I would include some cooked legumes and beans
3) I would include some whole grains, focusing on the non-gluten containing ones like brown rice, quinoa and buckwheat.
4) I would include various kinds of cooked vegetables, especially green vegetables.
5) Nuts and seeds, as well as avocados would be on the menu. I’m not sure what the fat content of the diet would be. I suspect it would be somewhat higher than an adult diet (which should be no more than 15% for adults, ideally less than 10%), but certainly a lot less than a pure raw food diet, which often has a fat content of over 50% of total calories.
6) I would include a B12 supplement (because I’m not naïve).
So I’m essentially I’m talking about a healthy, whole foods, plant-based diet, with very few refined products and lots of fruits and vegetables. That’s what I think is healthy for children.
I know some people will say: but cooked foods and especially grains are so bad for you… why would you ever give your children foods that have been destroyed by fire?
I’m sorry, but even though I think a raw food diet can do wonders for adults, mainly because of it’s such a great cleansing diet that eliminates almost 100% of the foods that can ever make you sick, after 15 years of experience in the field I have seen how a lot of “raw food science” is completely bogus and does not stand up to honest scrutiny and research.
If you pay attention to all the nutritional factors I’ve covered in this article (and a few others I didn’t have time to cover), you could technically design a raw vegan diet that contains everything children need. But, it would be complicated, and likely not as practical. A good plant-based diet will accomplish all of the benefits in a much simpler way.
Of course, this is what I would personally do based on many years of thinking over the subject, the body of scientific research and my personal experience with other raw vegan families. I would be interested in hearing what my readers think.