Vegan diet for kids gains following

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BALTIMORE — Eleven-year-old Tyler Parker-Rollins says being vegan isn’t always easy. But he says it’s also “fun” and that he plans to be one “forever.”

His 9-year-old brother, Will, loved it when his friends tried vegan pizza at his birthday party and “they actually really liked it.”

Their little sister, Maya, who’s 5, says she’s vegan “because I love animals, and I don’t want pigs to be killed.” She then runs off to find her copy of “Charlotte’s Web,” which, she says, “is where I got that from.”

The Parker-Rollins kids, growing up in Lutherville, Md., are among a growing number of children whose parents are raising them vegan, without any of the milk or meat conventionally considered part of a growing child’s diet.

When she was pregnant, their mother, Lesley Parker-Rollins, got a lot of “Are you sure you should do that?” and one friend accused her of “taking it too far.”

“If I knew you couldn’t be healthy and vegan, then no, I wouldn’t be doing it,” says the stay-at-home mom, who’s passionate about animal rights and became a vegan 15 years ago. “For Tyler and Will and Maya, it’s never been this torturous thing or even close. It’s just that eating animals doesn’t make sense to them.”

In 2010, about 3 percent of children and adults in the United States were vegan, according to the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group. Two years later, vegan adults comprised 5 percent of the population, and though the group didn’t count vegan kids then, John Cunningham, the organization’s consumer research manager, suspects the children’s count also jumped 2 percent because the youth poll typically tracks the adult one.

“It’s a huge increase. In 1994, it was 1 percent,” Cunningham says. “Veganism and vegetarianism have become more accepted in society.”

He says parents of children who say they want to become vegan are also more likely now to allow the switch.

“It’s not as odd and scary as it may have been 10 years ago,” says the 43-year-old Parker-Rollins, who convinced her once “all cheese and steak sub” husband, Ray, to join her in giving up meat and dairy. “You can go to any Giant or Safeway and find everything you need.”

Parker-Rollins breast-fed each of her three children — vegans endorse mother’s milk, which a woman willingly gives her baby unlike, say, cows’ milk that is meant for a calf, not a human. She gradually introduced the kids to sweet potatoes, peas and apple sauce, and then eventually to proteins like tofu and chickpeas. They drank fortified soy milk.

A school bully once harassed Tyler, Parker-Rollins says, trying to force a chicken leg into his mouth. Her son was “very upset.”

But even though her children are the only vegan students at Lutherville Laboratory Elementary School, she says they have run into few problems. Tyler says he’s been teased “almost never.”

The children’s packed lunches look like anyone else’s — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or faux turkey ones made with Tofurky.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics both endorse vegan diets for children — even infants and toddlers.

If parents are careful that their children are getting enough to eat and the right nutrients, Adina Fradkin, a clinical dietitian at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, sees nothing wrong with it either.

For babies and young children, Fradkin says, vegan parents should be mindful of substituting key growth nutrients typically found in animal products.