UAE parents discuss veganism and children
Is it fair to impose a parent's vegan beliefs onto a child? Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal, Stefan Lindeque

Veganism has never been more popular. Once dismissed as a  fleeting fad, the lifestyle and health movement has skyrocketed in recent years and now looks here to stay – 2020 Google Trends data suggests that interest in veganism has doubled since 2015, while the number of new vegan products available on the market has mushroomed by 250% since 2010 to keep up with the burgeoning demand.

At its most basic level a vegan diet is one that cuts out all animal products - it goes beyond vegetarianism and means cutting out eggs and dairy as well as meat and fish. Nevetheless individual interpretations of veganism vary, from meaning a plant-based diet or non-dairy vegetarian diet, all the way to a lifestyle choice that eschews all levels of animal exploitation, including that involved in the production of vegetarian products such as honey, figs and even avocado, as well as animal-based products in clothes, cosmetics and toiletries.

There has also been a rise in the number of people who identify with the sustainable values of veganism, but take a more ‘flexitarian’ approach to their diet, occasionally including dairy or fish, depending on variousf factors.

While there are some conflicting views on the appropriateness of a vegan diet for children – with some high-profile cases of parents being accused of malnourishing their kids with a vegan diet – medical bodies generally agree that it’s possible to raise healthy children on a vegan diet, so long as close attention is paid to the nutrients they are receiving and supplements are given for any key minerals that it may be difficult for children to get without animal products.

This World Vegan Day, we speak to four UAE-based meat-free mums about how their choices are impacting them and their families…

I let my son decide for himself and he chose to be vegan - but my husband still eats meat

- Assile Beydoun, 32, from Lebanon, mum and founder of Dubai Vegan Community
Assile Beydoun
Assile Beydoun is the founder of Dubai Vegan Community Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque

Assile Beydoun, 32, from Lebanon, is the founder of Dubai Vegan Community and mum to Jude, age 5. They both became vegan three years ago, while her husband, Maher, continues to eat meat...

“We were at a garden party and there were so many different types of meat on the BBQ. It made me think about how, in the past, an animal would be killed and all the village would feed off of it. But now we have multiple animals in the same dish.

“Around the same time, I rescued a cat and adopted a dog. And it just all started feeling wrong to me… I was asking myself why I wanted to save some animals but at the same time happily eat other animals. Why is a cat’s life more important than a cow’s life, or a goat’s? So that’s where it started for me.

“Interestingly, at the time I was suffering from anaemia. But since I have become vegan that has shifted because I am eating so many greens.

“I recently completed an online certification with Cornell University in plant-based nutrition as I am so fascinated by the science behind plant-based health. And the stats are astounding. The World Health Organisation published a report recently which said that processed food is as carcinogenic as smoking and other chemicals. There is also a lot of interesting information about how a plant-based diet can help with health issues, such as diabetes. Very few people seem to realise that good nutrition prevents diseases, which is better than trying to cure them.”

Veganism is more than just a diet

“When I decided to go vegan, my husband said, ‘Well that’s OK for you to make that decision for yourself, but I choose to still eat meat.’ We decided we would let Jude decide for himself.

“I educate him on animals and ecosystems and nutrition. But he had already had non-vegan foods like Nutella, milk and pizza before I became vegan, so he still likes them.

“He makes his own choices. For example, we went to Burger Fuel and he chose the meat-free burger. Another time he asked me to come into his class and talk to his classmates about the impact of animal farming on agriculture and sustainability.

“I don’t show him upsetting videos or images. I just talk to him about the nutrition, or the ethics of being kind to animals, or the environmental impact.

“When we talk about sustainability, we also talk about recycling, climate change and other factors. For example, we talk about how the world’s transport is responsible for 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, while animal agriculture is responsible for 51 percent.”

We owe it to our kids and planet to do some research

“I set up the Dubai Vegan Community to make it easier for people wanting to live a vegan lifestyle here in Dubai. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable and I don’t judge people – I ate meat for 30 years!  I just think we owe it to our planet and to our kids to do some research.

“It’s not a secret that the world needs change and that plant-based living is the best way to do this. The United Nations just published an article encouraging people to move towards a plant-based diet to effect climate change.

“It’s been said that the amount of water used in the production of one burger is the equivalent of two months of showers for one person. Nearly one third of the world’s water is used in animal agriculture. Only five percent is used in homes.

“Whatever campaign it is that is close to your heart – save the oceans, your family’s health… Ask yourself how we can go back to nature.

I lost 12KG by going vegan

“From what I have seen through the Dubai Vegan Community, the journey is different for everyone. Some people just stop consuming animal products overnight. If someone does this, it’s normally for ethical reasons – like they have just had a moment of realisation. If it’s for health reasons, it’s normally gradual. Most people seem to stop eating meat and chicken, then fish, then dairy.

“It’s hard to stop eating dairy as it doesn’t feel like anyone got harmed for it. But often once someone finds out about the industry and how those products are made, they move from vegetarian to vegan.

“I’ve met so many people that have cleared health issues by going vegan. It can be very beneficial in helping to reverse very serious health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Anecdotally, acne, allergies, IBS and other digestion issues are eased through a plant-based diet. Also, a lot of people are lactose intolerant without even knowing. So that is helped too.

“For myself, I have lost 12KG and my energy levels are so much higher. A lot of people experience that.”

Raising a vegan child

“In my experience, the main issue in raising a vegan child is society – family, in-laws and friends telling your child behind your back that they can eat meat and even giving it to them. Also, events like birthday parties can be tough for children. So it’s really just the social aspect that is hard.

“Psychologically, I don’t want him to feel different as that can be traumatizing. So it’s just about educating him on why I am making that decision for myself and letting him make his own choice.

“Many animal names are changed when it is turned into meat to make it easier to stomach that we are eating a living animal – cow becomes beef for example … I have no issue with my son eating meat as long as he really understands where it is from. At the end of the day, he was born into a meat-eating family. But now we are on this journey together.”

Assile Beydoun
Assile's husband Maher explains why he has chosen not to join her in becoming vegan
"Why I still eat meat"
Assile’s husband, Maher, gives us his thoughts on veganism:
“When Assile first told me she was going vegan, I was in shock. I convinced myself that it might just be a phase. Thinking about it now, Assile has always loved animals and hated meat so I guess it makes sense.
“We can generally always find places that we both want to eat and food that we are both happy with. We each have our own path that we are following at our own pace.
“What I have learnt from watching Assile’s journey is that veganism is not just a diet, it is a lifestyle – a daily way of living. It’s a noble and selfless choice, but you need the will and the power for it.
“Raising children vegan is definitely a doable option and should be a step-by-step practice. It was hard for me in the beginning to get used to the fact that our son Jude is now vegan, but slowly and steadily I am accepting it.
“My favorite vegan meal is anything with chickpeas. I enjoy chickpeas prepared any way – boiled, Provençal, raw, mashed, with tahini, with rice.
“The thing that bothers me most about vegans is when they get disgusted when they see meat, knowing that many of them have consumed it for most of their lives.
I am totally aware of how veganism can help save the Earth, but nothing can replace my favourite all-American burger - not even a burger made with a plant-based alternative. I am a meat lover."

Knowing how unhealthy a lot of animal-based foods are, I want to ensure my daughter gets the best nutrition from a plant-based diet

- Joumana Saber, from Lebanon and Palestine, is the founder of The Hippy Deli vegan food delivery brand
Joumana Saber
Joumana Saber is founder of the vegan food delivery brand The Hippy Deli Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Joumana Saber, from Lebanon and Palestine, is the founder of The Hippy Deli vegan food brand and is raising her daughter, Tara, to be vegan too...

“I don’t know how it happened exactly. I had been vegetarian since my early 20s. When I was pregnant with Tara, I found myself being more aware of veganism and decided that I wanted to raise my baby vegan.

“Vegan activitists were popping up all over social media. One of them, James Aspy, was talking about baby calves being taken away from their mothers so that the milk can be harvested instead of the baby cow having it. Also there were documentaries about the horrors of dairy farming and I didn’t want to support that in any way.

“I aligned my actions to my values and made the decision, with my husband’s support, that we wouldn’t feed her animal products. Children have so much innocence and so much compassion for animals. And I felt strongly that I couldn’t just strip her of this without her even being aware of it.

“Also, knowing how unhealthy a lot of animal-based foods are, I wanted to make sure my daughter was getting the best nutrition from a plant-based diet.”

My husband agreed our daughter could be raised vegan, but there were some rules

“My husband eats everything. In the last year, he has definitely reduced his consumption, but he has witnessed animals being slaughtered and still he chooses to eat meat. I don’t try to convert him – I just try to inspire.

“When I told him I wanted to raise our child vegan, he didn’t disagree. He was actually supportive. He knew I had been vegetarian for a long time and he knew where my values were.

“We made some rules that I wouldn’t use the words ‘murder’, or ‘kill’, or other words that might be scary for her. We also agreed that we would make sure she didn’t feel better than anyone else for it and that, if she wanted to eat meat, I would be supportive.

“So far, she has never asked for his food. But sometimes she wants something that looks like food she would eat, like chips, and she might ask for it, but he explains it’s not vegan and doesn’t give it to her.

“Helping me to raise her vegan is one of the ways that he shows me that he supports and respects me. I think one of the reasons that he supports me is that she is so healthy. I make a point not to pull her away from people that are eating animal products. Her entire family are meat eaters, so she needs to be used to it.”

Veganism isn't perfection but just one path to a better way of living

“When I was new to it, I wanted to share it and I think sometimes I came across as rude or pushy. People thought I had an ego about it, but I didn’t. I always remind myself that veganism isn’t perfection – it’s just one path to a better way of living. I think we all just have to identify our own values and make sure own actions are in line with them.

“Whether it’s saying ‘no’ to animal-tested beauty products, or shopping for local produce – as long as everyone is doing their part to leave a better planet for the next generation, that’s the important thing to me. In my ideal world, everyone would be vegan and we would be working towards animal liberation. But I know that’s an unrealistic ideal.

“It’s important to me that Tara isn’t judgmental of other people’s choices. As well as being compassionate with animals, I also want her to be compassionate with humans too.”

What to feed a vegan toddler
Joumana shares her tips for vegan meal ideas for kids:
- Porridge with banana or mango
- Vegan cereal with coconut milk or rice milk
- Toast with zaater, avocado, homous
- Fruit smoothies
- Acai bowl
- Homemade nut butters

Lunch and dinner:
- Any type of vegetable stew in a tomato sauce with legumes, served with rice, quinoa or bulgur wheat
- A sandwich with vegan cheese
- Homemade vegan pizza
- Brown rice noodles with tahina sauce, with lemon, spices and nutritional yeast

"Going meat-free is more about saving the planet for me, but I'm not imposing my beliefs on my family"

Doua Benhida
While Doua is not fully vegan, she has been converting to a plant-based diet, motivated by the desire to reduce packaging waste

 Doua Benhida, from Morocco, is mum to son Mekaal and founder of The Zero Waste Collective. While Doua has slowly been converting to a vegetarian diet since her teenage years, her husband and son are still dedicated meat-eaters...

“I used to be a huge fan of meat. But as soon as I started cooking for myself, I started getting turned off of it because of the blood, so I stopped eating red meat when I was 18. I would eat it about three times a year, for example over Eid in Morocco with family – but I did it for the sake of occasion.

“I am not against the consumption of animals. My religion says we should consume everything in small quantities. But as time went on, when I was eating meat, I would be aware of the thought, ‘This is an animal’, and the taste started to change for me.

Zero waste mission

“Zero waste has been an ongoing passion for me. In 2018, I committed to a fully zero-waste lifestyle.

“I stopped consuming milk and eggs because I couldn’t find them without packaging. I can make almond milk at home but can’t make cow’s milk. So that became a simple decision.

“I still eat cheese, but I buy it from the counters using my own containers I have brought from home. They weigh the container and then add the cheese and deduct the price of the container.

“For me, being vegetarian is a personal choice based on the treatment of animals and the impact on the environment, whether through farming or through packaging.

“My main approach is to avoid packaging where possible. It’s all about the five R’s with reducing waste – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot (rot meaning to compost).

“Environmentally speaking, the amount of energy and water used to raise animals to feed the human population is insane. The global population is just getting bigger and bigger, which means we just want more and more of these products and it’s too much for our planet to handle.”

Happy animals

“In Morocco last year, my family prepared a beautiful dish of healthy, well-treated chicken from the family farm in a tasty tagine. I ate some out of respect to my family.

“When it comes to my son, I don’t want to impose my choices on him. I was raised a meat-eater and my husband is from the north of India, and for him, meat is life. My parents gave us a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and meat. I do the same for my son.

“I would never ask my husband if I could start raising my son to be vegetarian. Our son has two parents and my husband doesn’t want to be vegetarian, so why would he want his son to be? Just because I have made that decision for myself, why should I impose it on my son?

“When we were on holiday last summer at my family’s farm, my son saw a chicken. Later, when we had lunch and I told him it was chicken, he got confused and was pointing at the chicken outside.

“When you see an animal being sacrificed, you see the blood and the spirit of the animal leaving. My husband and I were both raised that way, seeing that happen. And we have agreed that we want our child to see that too, whether he eats meat or not.

“If my son asks me in the future why I am not eating the meat that he and his father are eating, I don’t know what I am going to say. I don’t want to tell him that it’s bad – I will just tell him that I prefer vegetables.”

My son isn't fully vegan - I want him to enjoy being a little boy, so if we're in a mall and he wants an ice cream, I buy him one. But if it were up to my husband, he would be vegan by now

- Cassie Gibson, mum to Jacob
Cassie Gibson
Cassie Gibson is the mother of Jacob Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Cassie Gibson is mum to Jacob and although she and her husband are vegan, they are raising their son non-vegan

I stopped eating meat when I was 17 or 18, but I still ate fish and dairy. About nine years ago, I met my husband. He was pescetarian too. For him it was a health thing. For me it was about not wanting to eat animals. It was rare back then to meet someone who didn’t eat meat. So it was quite a big deal for me.

“A couple of years ago, Michael said he didn’t want to drink milk anymore. Jacob was about two years old then and he used to suffer with tummy issues, specifically constipation. I thought it was because of bananas, but I read up on it and found that dairy can cause this too.

“So we all switched over to coconut milk and we stopped yoghurt and cheese. The difference in his tummy problems was almost instant. Within a few days his tummy issues had gone away.

“Then we watched a couple of documentaries about the impact animal farming has on the environment – Cowspiracy and Vegan 2018. That was the turning point.”

New year's resolution

“On New Years Day 2019, Michael and I became vegan. We have had a couple of days during that time when we have had a little bit of cheese… It can be a hard diet to follow when you aren’t at home.

“Even that feels bad to me now – a bit of cheese feels as bad to me as having steak. It’s about the welfare of the animals during the dairy process. Male calves being slaughtered at birth and the cows being separated from their babies when they are born – the mother cows literally cry.

“But it’s also about the environment and our own health. We feel so much healthier since becoming vegan and, I don’t want to jinx it, but none of us have been ill or had a cold all year.”

Letting him choose

“Jacob isn’t vegan. He tried red meat a few times when he was younger, but never liked it. He eats salmon, tinned tuna and chicken because he doesn’t like lentils, or chickpeas, so he doesn’t get a lot of plant-based protein.

“He is great with vegetables and he loves all the meat-alternatives, like Quorn and vegan sausages.

“I feel like he should be able to make the decision himself. But my husband says that the quality of meat isn’t that good these days and that we probably aren’t doing him any favours by giving him the chicken and salmon. If it were up to Michael, Jacob would be vegan now.

“I wouldn’t stop Jacob eating anything he wants, for example at a party. He isn’t vegan and in my mind he is free to be a four-year-old.

“We buy vegan ice cream and I make my own vegan ice cream, but if we are in the mall and he wants an ice cream, I just get him one. I want him to enjoy just being a little boy.”

Easy weightloss

“Meat replacements can be very expensive. So we tend to make big batches of meals like vegetable curries and lentil bolognaise.

“One of our favourites is Deliciously Ella’s Cauliflower and Red Lentil Dhal. It’s so tasty that work colleagues are always asking me to bring in left-overs.

“Michael and I have both lost weight without even trying – I have lost about 4KG and Michael has lost about 8KG. And that’s without changing anything else in our lives. I think a big part of that was cutting out cheese.

“I am very passionate about the choice we have made. But I always remind myself that 12 months ago, I wasn’t doing half the things I am doing now. I know that everyone is on their own journey and making the choices that are right for them and for their families.

“Sometimes I think I should be less vocal about it. But I get enthusiastic when talking to people about it and I can get frustrated when people are blasé.

“The next step for us now is taking these ethics into other areas of our lives. I have a leather handbag that I bought before we became vegan. I want to start looking at vegan clothing and make-up brands. Michael and I feel good about how far we have come. But there is always room for improvement.”