Independent News and Media (UK)
02 March 2003
'Hostile' doctors and teachers discriminate
against vegetarian children, say parents
By Jonathan Thompson
Vegetarian parents are protesting against the discrimination they and their children are forced to face in everyday life.
A new report, to be published this week, claims that nearly half of all parents raising their children on a meat-free diet have experienced "hostility" over the decision – from doctors, health visitors, teachers or relatives.
The findings – released by the leading animal rights group Animal Aid – are based on a survey of 800 vegetarian parents across the country.
The study found that 47 per cent of those questioned complained about "negative pressure" over their child's diet – despite the fact that the group claim there is little or no medical evidence to support such concern.
Relatives were the largest group opposed to child vegetarianism, with 54 per cent of respondents citing them as a problem. One in five reported a similar attitude from their GP, with a similar amount pointing the finger at health visitors.
Animal Aid's campaigns officer, Becky Lilly, described the results as "surprising".
"The finding that shocked us most was the amount of pressure coming from close relatives – no doubt well-meaning, but ill-informed," said Ms Lilly. "This is despite bodies such as the British Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association confirming that a well-balanced vegetarian, indeed vegan, diet is exceptionally healthy.
"It is frustrating that, in this day and age, such prejudice is still widespread."
The charity has now called on the BMA and the Department of Health to issue guidelines to all health practitioners enabling them to "provide their patients with sound advice on vegetarian diets".
Animal Aid's views were supported by the Vegetarian Society. "A varied and balanced vegetarian diet is a healthy lifestyle choice for children and adults of all ages," said spokeswoman Kerry Bennett. "Most vegetarians find it easy to meet the Government's recommended balance of good health."
Despite these claims, leading nutritionists yesterday warned parents to be careful when considering vegetarianism as an option for children.
"If a vegetarian diet is well thought-out and balanced, it shouldn't be any better or worse than a normal diet," said Brigid McKevith, a scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. "However, there have been some cases of children on restrictive diets not thriving or growing properly.
"A vegetarian diet that keeps adults in good health is not necessarily appropriate for infants and young children. This is a time of rapid growth and development when a good supply of energy and nutrients is particularly important. Diets that are low in energy and fat and high in bulk may pose a nutritional risk for children."
Other critics of vegetarianism were more outspoken. The television chef Anthony Worrall-Thompson described introducing children to a meat-free diet as "dangerous".
"On medical grounds it can't be very good," said Mr Worrall-Thompson, who owns the Notting Grill, a meat restaurant in West London. "It also strikes me as dangerous to start relying on supplements at a young age.
"Children are growing, and protein is important for that. They'll be missing out on things they need – vitamins they can't get from soya or the fungus that grows on pipes or whatever they eat."
'He's only six, but he handles it well'
Seamus Brough couldn't understand why he was told off by his teacher on a school trip to Asda.
The six-year-old vegan from Wolverhampton was walking past the deli counter when he pointed to a chicken roasting on a spit and explained to his classmates that it was a dead animal.
"Some of the kids started crying and Seamus was told off by the teacher for upsetting them," explained his mother, Mary Brady. "He couldn't understand why he had got into trouble just for telling the truth."
Later on the trip, says Ms Brady, Seamus was told "not to be rude" after asking if the doughnut he had been offered was suitable for vegans.
"A lot of people misunderstand veganism, often those in professional positions who should know better," says Ms Brady, 31. "Seamus is only six but he handles it well. If somebody asks him why he doesn't have eggs, he tells them he doesn't want to eat something that has come out of a chicken's bottom."
According to Ms Brady, bringing up Seamus on a vegan diet caused problems from the start.
"When Seamus was 18 months old, a health visitor came round," says Ms Brady. "She kept commenting on how intelligent and well developed he was, until I mentioned that he was vegan. After that, her attitude changed completely. She started saying that he looked clumsy in his movements, and that his mental functioning could be impaired in later life by his diet. "I was so frustrated that a health visitor could be that ignorant."