Some children are picky eaters, some are obese and some are both. But none of Onile Ngozi's three children falls into those categories.
Ngozi, 45, of St. Louis, became a vegan 18 years ago and has raised her children, ages, 7, 17 and 19, on a vegan diet.
Vegetarians eliminate meat, poultry and fish from their diet but eat eggs and dairy products. Vegans go a step further. Their diets are plant-based and don't allow for dairy, eggs or any animal products.
Yes, Ngozi admits, some people think she's crazy.
"They say, 'What do you mean you're not feeding your children any meat? What do you mean you're not giving them dairy? They need iron. They need protein.' They're amazed that they're so healthy, active and intelligent. And they're amazed that they want food that's good for them."
Earlier this year, the children's book "Vegan is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action," by Ruby Roth, a vegan mother, hit store shelves. Reaction to it was mixed. Many meat-eaters found it preachy and graphic from an animal rights standpoint. And some health experts worried that children eating such a diet wouldn't get proper nutrition.
Nicole German, a dietitian/blogger in Atlanta, wrote that "it could easily scare a young child into eating vegan, and, without proper guidance, that child could become malnourished."
Vegans say the opposite is true.
Lee Ferrenbach, a sales associate at Golden Grocer Natural Foods in the Central West End and a vegan, believes babies prefer a vegan diet.
"If you put meat and fruit in front of a baby, they'll choose the fruit," he says.
"Dairy causes the most problems," added John LaRico, owner of the store. "It creates a lot of mucus. And you can get calcium from green leafy vegetables, micro-algaes, nuts and seeds."
Most doctors and dietitians aren't willing to say that we're all meant to be vegans and that meat and dairy products are bad for us. But a growing number of them have begun accepting that the vegan diet is a viable, healthy one when practiced judiciously, even for pregnant women and their children.
Dr. Scott Williams, an ob-gyn with St. Charles Clinic Medical Group, has treated pregnant women on vegan diets and says it poses challenges but that they're not insurmountable.
Meat, fish, poultry and milk provide most of the iron, protein, calcium and Vitamin B12 vital for developing bones and teeth, the brain and nervous system. But carefully mixing vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains and soy milk can compensate.
"With most vegetarians and vegans, the biggest problem is anemia and lack of iron, and iron supplements are hard to take," Williams says. "They cause nausea and constipation, which you already have when you're pregnant. But you can also get iron from dried beans, juice and fortified cereals and soy milk."
Most pregnant women, vegan and non-vegan alike, take pre-natal vitamins that have what Williams calls super physiological amounts of nutrients. For instance, he said, a pregnant woman needs about 400 units of Vitamin D a day but supplements provide about 800 units.
He would never suggest that a pregnant woman give up her vegan lifestyle.
"Absolutely not," he said. "They're typically healthier than the general population. They tend to be slimmer and closer to ideal body weight. The biggest nutritional problem we see today as ob-gyns is morbid obesity."
Karen Weaver, pediatric dietitian at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, says that problems can arise for vegan mothers during breast feeding if they don't know the recommended levels of intake for all nutrients and then read food and supplement labels.
The biggest problems arise, she says, when they go to vegan websites that instruct them to make radical changes and not pay attention to what medical experts say.
"If you Google vegan nutrition and supplements, you'll get people saying that you don't need supplements," she said. "There have been cases where the mother couldn't breast feed but didn't want to use infant formulas, because the Vitamin D comes from an animal source. I don't think there's a choice. You either need to breast feed or use commercial infant formula."
She does find that vegan mothers tend to breast feed a little longer than non-vegan mothers, because their breast milk is consistent with their own diet.
Once vegan mothers begin moving their children to table food, they must ensure they're eating enough beans, rice and calcium fortified products such as juice, almond milk and soy. She also highly recommends vitamin supplements for the kids.
Ngozi, owner of Blue Nile Spa, a holistic health clinic in midtown, became vegan 18 years ago for health reasons.
She was struggling with cystic breasts and endometriosis, a painful condition that occurs when cells from the lining of the uterus grow in other areas of the body. A vegan friend gave her herbs that stopped the relentless pain. Ngozi decided right then to immediately give up all meat, eggs and dairy products.
It wasn't easy at first, she admits. "I got really sick, like the worst flu-like symptoms for a couple of weeks. Then I woke up one day from the best sleep I'd ever had, and I've felt great since then."
Her endometriosis and the cysts in her breasts have gone away, she says, and she can count on one hand the number of times her children have been sick with a cold or the flu. And unlike a lot of parents, Ngozi says, she never had a problem getting her children to eat.
"It was never an issue," she said. They didn't know anything other (than vegan). They'd eat a bell pepper like most kids eat a hot dog."
Her oldest daughter, Avia Love, said she never felt like the weird kid at school.
"In grade school, everyone around me was either vegetarian or vegan," says Love, 19, of Ferguson. "So I didn't get the peer pressure. When I went to high school, I'd pack my lunch or just eat the fruit or a salad at lunch. If I brought food to school, like a pomegranate, everyone would want to try it. It was more like, 'Ooh what is she eating? I want some.' "