Interview with Reed Mangels

Interviews  |  July 5, 2020

We’re so lucky to have the foremost expert on plant-based nutrition for children write the extensive nutrition chapter of our book and highlight certain nutrients in our recipes. She wrote The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book, which I read cover to cover while pregnant with my first child, and she has co-authored other books, including Simply Vegan, which was my first go-to nutrition guide when I first went vegan in 2002. She has taught nutrition at University of Massachusetts and has co-authored position papers for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on vegetarian diets for all stages of life.

The nutrition chapter is written in Q&A style, and I won’t repeat the same questions that are in the book. Today I’m giving our readers a chance to get to know her a little better and get a sense of what it’s like to be a well-respected vegan RD/expert and vegan parent.

Marisa: First things first, Dr. Mangels, could you tell us a little bit about your vegan journey? What inspired you to make the change to vegan?

Reed: I had been mostly vegetarian since I was in college and read a book called Diet for a Small Planet. My husband and I were friends with a group of vegans in Baltimore who went on to start The Vegetarian Resource Group. They inspired us to become vegan.

Marisa: Well, that explains your connection to the organization! Were you always interested in nutrition? When did you decide to become an RD and then get your PhD in nutrition?

Reed: I wasn’t even aware that nutrition was a field of study until I was in college. I went to a presentation by a renowned nutrition scientist with one of my roommates and realized that this was an area that combined my interest in science with a desire to help people. I changed my major from math to nutrition as a junior in college and, after graduation, completed a dietetic internship which is one path to becoming an RD. I worked in hospitals for about 6 years as an RD and discovered that the thing I loved most about my job was the yearly class that I taught to nutrition majors. In order to teach full-time at a college level, I needed a PhD. I was also intrigued by the idea of doing laboratory research in nutrition.

Marisa: What was it like working with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on their vegetarian diets position papers? You had to sift through all the research on vegetarian and vegan diets. Did it change your thinking about vegan nutrition in any way?

Reed: I was fortunate to work with inspiring co-authors Ginny Messina, Vesanto Melina, and Winston Craig on the vegetarian position papers. Together, we read and discussed many research studies and questioned each others’ assumptions. By the time that we finished, we were proud to have created evidence-based position statements that could be used by RDs and other health care professionals. Since my specialty area is vegetarian/vegan nutrition and I keep up-to-date on research in this area, there weren’t really surprises or changes in my way of thinking about vegan nutrition. Ginny Messina is a leader in developing tools to explain vegetarian/vegan nutrition to consumers and her work on the food guide that was published with one of the position papers led me to think more about how to present information in a succinct, understandable way.

Marisa: Which is really important, and I think you do a great job of it. As you say in our nutrition chapter, there aren’t many studies on vegan diets for kids yet. Why do you think that is? What do you think needs to happen for there to be more studies?

Reed: Vegans make up about 3 percent of the U.S. population and not all of them have children. Since this is a relatively small share of the population, there’s not a lot of interest in (or funding for) studying them. Researchers who are not part of the vegan community may not know how to find vegan children to study. There are challenges with studying children. For example, imagine trying to record how much food a one-year-old eats and how much gets on their face, the floor, etc. Parents often don’t want to subject their children to potentially uncomfortable blood draws. For there to be more studies, there will need to be increased funding to support research. In adults, studies of vegetarians were initially focused on nutritional deficiencies. These days, much of the research is examining the health benefits of plant-based, including vegan, diets for adults. It would be fascinating to have a long-term study of children who were raised as vegan to see what effect this had on their health as adults.

Marisa: We would all be on the edge of our seats to find out the results of a study like that. Your daughters are all grown up. Did you raise them veg? How do they feel about it now, looking back? Were there any challenges you had to overcome as a parent that you would like to talk about–logistical, social, etc.?

Reed: Both of my daughters were raised as vegans. They continue to follow a vegan diet, and, I believe, consider this to be part of who they are. The main challenges were social situations – birthday parties, summer camp, snacks for sports teams, for example. We were fortunate to live in a supportive community. Other parents had kids with celiac disease and food allergies so we all looked after each other. It didn’t hurt that I was happy to send lots of attractive, tasty vegan food to events to share. One of my daughters didn’t like a lot of foods, so that was challenging. At one point, the only vegetables she would eat were peas, corn, baby carrots, and occasional broccoli. Now she works on a farm and eats almost every vegetable!

Marisa: That gives us parents of picky eaters hope! What is one thing you wish more vegan parents knew about raising vegan kids? What is one thing you wish non-vegan parents knew about raising vegan kids?

Reed: The vegan parents that I am most frequently in touch with are doing an amazing job of raising vegan kids. Their children like being vegan, eat healthy diets, and are super active. I worry about vegan children whose parents don’t realize that supplements of vitamin B12 are essential, who have a lot of restrictions (like very low fat or gluten-free) without any health issues that require those restrictions, and families that are so worried about getting everything just right that they forget that eating should be fun.

I wish that non-vegan parents knew that vegan diets can be a great, healthy way to raise kids and that they were more open to considering a vegan diet for their family.

Marisa: That makes two of us, and I hope our book will help more people feel inspired to go this route with their kids. Finally, what is on the horizon for you? Any new projects?

Reed: I’m working on a major update of a book about vegetarian diets for dietitians and other healthcare professionals and on a presentation about vegetarian/vegan diets for dietitians and others working in WIC programs. I’m working with summer interns at The Vegetarian Resource Group on projects related to low-cost vegan diets.

Thanks so much for this opportunity!

Marisa: All such important work. Thank you for all you do, Dr. Mangels! Delighted to have you on board with our project.