Dr. Natalie Santiago
We Talk With the Chicago- Based Vegan Pediatrician
This month we had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Natalie Santiago, a vegan pediatrician in Chicago, IL ( USA) and talk about what it means to be vegan in the medical profession, how to approach the topic of a vegan lifestyle with your doctor, and how to safely navigate raising a vegan child.
While the majority of physicians are firm believers in the Standard American Diet ( SAD), there are plenty of doctors who support a vegan diet. “I am finding more physicians who see the health benefits of vegan or plant- based diets,” said Santiago. “[ they] are not only adopting the diet for themselves and their families, but also encouraging their patients to do so as well.”
Many parents are afraid to broach the topic of veganism with their pediatricians for fear they will disapprove of raising a child on a vegan diet. Santiago assured us that the American Academy of Pediatrics ( AAP) has stated that a well- balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy for children. She encourages parents to track their child’s food intake for two or three days so they have a solid representation of what their child is eating. “Take photos of the meals and track the meals with a free online meal tracker that tracks calories and macronutrients as well as micronutrients,” said Santiago. “This may seem like a lot of work to do, but sometimes it takes concrete evidence to change views.” Bring your child’s food log to their next appointment as proof they have a well- balanced diet and are getting the nutrients they need.
Thankfully, the medical field is changing and becoming more educated on veganism, but it’s a slow process. Santiago believes that we, as parents, can help this process along.
It is important to remember that physicians are just like everyone else. “We have all been bombarded by decades of sophisticated advertising that suggest that only animal products [ provide] sufficient amounts of protein and that, without it, we’re not receiving optimal nutrition,” said Santiago. The education doctors receive in undergraduate and medical school teaches them about macronutrients in biochemistry and cell biology, but there is not much formal instruction on nutrition alone.
As vegans, we are constantly being warned about the importance of vitamin B12 and it is not something to take lightly. Vitamin B12 ( Cobalamin) is necessary for many things, including red blood cell production. “Without it, a person can develop large, poorly functioning red blood cells, gastrointestinal disturbances, nervous system disturbances, and failure to thrive in babies, just to name a few,” warns Santiago. Failure to thrive results in poor weight gain, developmental delays, and insufficient overall growth. Keep in mind that there are many causes of failure to thrive and vitamin B12 deficiency is but one cause. During pregnancy, if the mother is deficient in vitamin B12 and folic acid ( vitamin B9), the baby has a greater risk of developing neural tube defects. “Neural tube defects are abnormalities of the neural tube, which forms the brain, spinal column and spinal cord,” said Santiago. “It is important that women of childbearing age make sure that they are not deficient in these vitamins.” Neural tube defects occur very early in pregnancy, usually before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
Vitamin B12 and folic acid are just as important after pregnancy for both mom and baby. The AAP recommends that mothers who can, and want to, should breastfeed exclusively until the baby is six months of age and to continue breastfeeding until 12 months of age. “Mothers who are breastfeeding may be advised to continue taking their prenatal vitamins, which contain these and other vitamins,” said Santiago. “[ It is also advised] to supplement their diets with foods rich in these vitamins, such as leafy greens, fortified cereals, and nutritional yeast. This can help them to pass along some of the vitamins to their babies.” Some pediatricians advise mothers who are solely breastfeeding to give their babies a B12 supplement, as not all of the mother’s intake of vitamins crosses over into their milk.
“As children grow and begin eating pureed veggies and fruits, and later table foods, it’s important to choose the most nutrient- dense, vitamin- fortified foods so that children do not become deficient in these and other vitamins.”
Another essential vitamin to include in any vegan diet is vitamin D. “I occasionally take vitamin D,” said Santiago, “Living in Chicago, where I don’t get great sun exposure on a daily basis, and having brown skin, I’m more at risk of being deficient.”
Dr. Santiago has known for a long time that veganism is the future. “My mom tells people that I was vegan from birth,” joked Santiago. “I was lactose intolerant and I shunned meat as a young child. I asked my mom once where meat came from, I don’t remember her answer, I know it was age- appropriate, but I was horrified.” Even though she occasionally ate meat throughout her childhood, by her teenage years, she found her path and was done consuming animals. She has never looked back. “I was the only one of my friends [ who was vegan], and I did get some mild ribbing,” recalled Santiago. “Interestingly enough, one of those friends has been vegan now for some years and is a naturopath who teaches her clients about the health benefits of veganism!” Santiago started her journey to veganism by way of a vegetarian diet. Dairy was the last hold out.
“I read an article some years ago about the horrors of the dairy industry,” said Santiago. “I already knew this. I’d known it for years. Dairy is biologically addictive to keep calves nursing until they are ready to be weaned, and humans who eat dairy become addicted as well.” Even though she was consuming very little dairy by that point, she felt ashamed of it and, after reading that article, she was done.
Santiago reminds us that there are no perfect vegans. “I am sure that when I walk down the street I accidentally step on an ant from time to time. However, each day I do my best to cause as little damage to the world as I can, and not to benefit from animal cruelty,” said Santiago. “I have never once regretted becoming vegan. I am fortunate that I do have a choice, and I have made the choice that aligns best with my spirit and conscience. I encourage others who are concerned about their health, animal welfare, world hunger, environmental health and peace to look into veganism and how it can help with all of those. For those ready to make the change, welcome to the revolution.”
Dr. Natalie Santiago, MD, FAAP is a Board Certified Pediatrician based in Chicago, IL. She graduated from Creighton University School of Medicine in 2004 and has been a practicing pediatrician ever since.