Eating a plant-based diet can be challenging for adults, and even more so for kids. For example, you’ll have to plan healthy plant-based lunches that are also appealing to little taste buds.
So, is the effort worth it? Is plant-based eating a good option for kids, and what should you know?
How Is Plant-Based Different From Vegan?
The term plant-based can be a little intimidating to parents, but it’s not the same as a vegan diet. It’s an important distinction to make. The vegan diet eliminates any animal products. Plant-based eating is something that tends to be more customizable to your needs.
For example, you might still have some animal products, but they aren’t the diet’s focus. Instead, most meals that you eat when you’re plant-based center around plant foods like vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit and grains.
The flexible element of the diet is one that many paediatricians say they appreciate.
For kids, the benefits of a plant-based diet include the fact that first, they’re going to be getting more vegetables. Those vegetables are what this way of eating focuses on, and most children aren’t getting nearly the amount of veggies they should otherwise.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an astounding 90% of people in the U.S., including kids, don’t get enough vegetables, and 80% don’t have enough fruit. The recommendation is that kids get anywhere from one to 2.5 cups of vegetables a day, depending on their overall intake of calories. Similarly, the recommendation is anywhere from one to two cups of fruit a day.
Doctors feel that for most kids, a plant-based diet is healthy at all points of development, but if you have concerns, you should talk to your paediatrician.
Plant-based foods tend to have fewer calories than animal-based options, which can be positive in light of the childhood obesity epidemic in America. You do want to make sure that your kids are getting enough calories to support their daily activity level if obesity isn’t a concern. Foods that are plant-based and high in calories can include nuts, soy products and nut butter.
Avoid Focusing on Carbs
One issue you should be aware of with plant-based eating for children, and yourself for that matter is the potential to focus too much of what you’re eating on carbs. Rather than using plant-based proteins, for example, you might fill your kids up with carbohydrates.
That’s something to be very mindful of with any kind of plant-based eating.
Make sure, if you’re moving in a plant-based direction, that you’re mindful about including lots of whole foods in your child’s diet. Don’t be lured in by trendy labels of products promising to be plant-based, like granola bars or other types of snacks that may be plant-based but aren’t necessarily healthy.
No matter your particular eating style, you want to focus primarily on the most nutrient-dense foods you can.
What About Protein?
Protein is essential for growing children, not only for muscles but for many of their body’s other vital processes. Protein is often something we get from animal products, and it gives us the building blocks for amino acids that we need.
Protein from plant-based products may not be complete, or it might not be accessible to the body so you should factor this into your meal planning for your children. The amount of protein a child needs depends on their size and age.
You should make sure that if they follow a plant-based diet pretty closely that you’re compensating for the protein that they’re not getting.
Plant-based foods that can be protein sources are nuts and legumes, whole grains, and soy products.
Be Mindful Of These Minerals and Vitamins
Along with protein, there are some other minerals and vitamins that you need to be mindful of making sure you include in your child’s diet, especially if you’re following a plant-based diet.
Iron is a big one. Some plants have iron, but it mostly comes from animal sources. If you’re going plant-based, consider giving your child a multivitamin supplement with iron.
Vitamin B12 can also be challenging if you’re on a plant-based diet, again, making a multivitamin a good idea.
Calcium is vital for kids’ bone health, but many alternative milk options such as almond milk, are fortified with calcium.
Finally, while the sun is our best source of vitamin D, most of us don’t get enough, so you may want to opt for fortified alternative dairy products.
Susan is an avid writer, traveller, and overall enthusiast.