Childhood obesity is on the rise in the United States. Even the prevalence of pre-diabetes and diabetes is increasing in children. Families are busier than ever, while also more sedentary than previous generations. School lunch choices are mostly processed, fatty, sugary foods.
Lake Health Integrative Medicine’s registered dietitians discuss how a plant-based diet for elementary aged children can be a healthy alternative to the traditional American diet:
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is also referred to as a vegan diet. A plant-based diet includes only foods that come from plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, herbs and spices. This type of diet excludes all animal sources including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy.
Plant-based diets focus on whole foods that are minimally processed with as few added ingredients as possible. This eating style also aims to reduce processed food like chips, white bread/white pasta and sugar-added beverages.
Model healthy eating
It’s important for parents to be good role models for any healthy eating style. If you want your children to develop healthy eating patterns, then you need to eat healthy as well and show a commitment to healthier choices. Children are naturally curious, so explaining why certain foods are important for healthy growth and development can help them understand better food choices. It can be fun to get your children involved in cooking and grocery shopping as a family!
Can a plant-based diet be nutritious enough for a growing child?
In short – yes! Growing children require more calories and need to consume adequate amounts of protein, calcium and iron for optimal growth and development. For the most part, children need the same nutrients that adults need to be healthy. Their energy needs are just increased in comparison. A healthy, balanced diet should consist of a wide variety of fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts/seeds, legumes and beans. So what are the foundations of a healthy plant-based diet?
Protein: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which helps build, maintain and repair our muscles. All plant-proteins contain essential amino acids. Our bodies are able to store amino acids in the liver for later use, so there is no need to consume certain amino acids at one meal. Plant-based proteins include nuts/seeds, legumes and beans.
Calcium and iron: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most children do not get enough calcium and iron in their diet.
Calcium: This is needed to build healthy bones and teeth. Dairy products are the most popular sources of calcium. However, many plant sources are abundant in calcium as well, including fortified foods such as plant-based milk and yogurt, fortified orange juice, calcium-set tofu, leafy green vegetables, beans and dried apricots and figs.
Iron: This mineral is needed to produce red blood cells. A lack of red blood cells leads to iron deficiency, called anemia. There are two types of iron: Heme iron (animal sources) and non-Heme iron (plant sources). Non-heme iron found in plant sources is not as easily absorbed as heme sources are. However, as long as you get an adequate amount of non-Heme iron, you are likely getting enough iron in your diet. Great plant sources of iron include legumes (lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh and lima beans), grains (quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice and oatmeal), vegetables (tomato sauce, collard greens, Swiss chard and broccoli), plus blackstrap molasses, prune juice, raisins, dark chocolate and pumpkin seeds. Pairing a food rich in non-Heme iron with a food rich in vitamin C will help you absorb the most iron possible.
Will my child need any supplements?
As long as children are getting enough calories and are eating a variety of plant foods, there are typically no concerns about most vitamin or mineral deficiencies. However, any individual on a 100% plant-based diet will need to take B12 supplement, since B12 is primarily found in animal sources. It’s also a good idea to get vitamin D levels checked.
Planning a new eating style together
If your family wants to try a plant-based diet, it can be a good idea to consult with a registered dietitian to kick-off your new eating style with friendly guidance from an expert.