Darlene Jones-Bey knew that she had to change her way of life.
"I was really overweight. I was about 250 pounds," says this Ansonia mom. "I had very high cholesterol. I was at risk for cardiovascular disease, almost borderline diabetic."
Inspired by her boss, she decided to adopt a strict vegan diet, which means she would eat absolutely no animal products. She traded burgers for leafy greens and started losing weight and feeling better. And after several frustrating years of trying to conceive, Jones-Bey finally became pregnant. Now she calls her 9-month-old son, Eleon, a "vegan baby" because he drinks breast milk and gobbles up spoonfuls of tofu-scramble with pureed vegetables.
"He eats everything I give him," says Jones-Bey, a stay-at-home mother. "He even ate okra, which is something people don't like, and he ate it steamed."
Jones-Bey, a former pediatric phlebotomist, is studying to become a naturopathic physician and is dedicated to reading medical research because raising vegan children requires vital knowledge.
"I do think it's tricky," says Claire Dalidowitz, manager of clinical nutrition at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, who warns that vegan youngsters are more at risk for serious deficiencies than vegetarians because of the omission of milk and eggs. She advises parents to seek guidance: "I personally feel that they need some professional support to do it well."
The concern is the fast, critical brain development that occurs in an infant's first year of life, especially at the age of 6 months.
"At that point, we begin to worry about some of the minerals — iron, zinc and some of the vitamins," says Dalidowitz, referring to a potential lack of B12, DHA or choline. "We would run a nutritional analysis so that we could look at all of the vitamins and minerals and make sure that this child had what they need."
Fat-intake is also an incredibly important issue. To achieve optimal brain growth, toddlers need 50 percent of their calories from fat, most often consumed through milk and meat. Dalidowitz says some parents with vegan beliefs "negotiate" and supplement a low-fat soy milk with a complete soy formula, but she notes that testing of this bean product is controversial: "Look for 'GMO-free' labeling on these foods."
"I tell people [that] with veganism, you just learn to cook again," says Jones-Bey, who doesn't have trouble finding Eleon's favorite almond milk, mock-meat substitutes and nutritional yeast in many area grocery stores. While these foods are expensive, she's willing to spend the money because she blames her 10-year-old daughter's asthma and early puberty on their former habit of eating fast food. She says Eleon is different: "I notice with him, I have no health complications. He's just a healthy and happy baby."
But she is clear that this diet works for her family because she is informed: a crucial requirement for a vegan parent.