Is Vegan Healthy for Kids?
Kids can be healthy on a plant-based diet if you plan meals carefully and make sure they are getting all the nutrients they need to help them grow.
The day Stephanie B., 41, of Philadelphia, realized what really happens to chickens, the budding environmentalist stopped eating meat. “That’s when the whole animal-to-plate thing” became a stark choice that forever changed her life.
In high school, while living on a farm, she was taught how to raise and kill chickens “and I haven’t eaten meat since.”
A mom of two, Clara, 8, and Atticus, 5, she instills in her family that same farm-to-table awareness. They eat eggs, from the five chickens raised in their backyard, and get milk from Weaver’s Way, a food co-op and urban farm in the Mt. Airy neighborhood.
Wendy Romig, clinical doctor of nutrition at Sage Integrative Health Center in Philadelphia, also stopped eating meat in high school, but she wasn’t able to sustain the vegetarian diet.
“I wasn’t getting enough protein from eating mostly pasta and salads,” she says. After her second failed attempt in her twenties, she read Becoming Vegan and was hooked.
More vegetarian choices in stores
Emily and Charlie with their pita pizzas.
Vegetarians like Stephanie and Romig embrace vegetarianism or veganism for health, environmental and animal-rights reasons. Many others agree and have made plant-based eating a top trend driving the food and beverage industry, according to Forbes. A Nielsen and Plant Based Foods Association 2018 report says related sales were up 20 percent from the previous year.
That means what began as a niche market with very few meat and dairy alternatives is becoming mainstream with far more choices for vegetarians, who eat no meat, poultry, or fish, and vegans, who eat only plant-derived foods, which means no dairy or eggs.
The growth in the number of products available for those who want to move to a plant-based diet means “it’s gotten much easier for families to go vegan,” says Freya Dinshah, president of the American Vegan Society based in Malaga, NJ. “You’re going to find most items readily available in supermarkets, including specialty items like meatless burgers, vegan entrees, ice creams, milks.”
Plant-based diets for children
A vegetarian diet is recognized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as “appropriate for all ages of children, including infants and toddlers,” if done thoughtfully, says registered dietitian Mary Catherine Perry, RD, of Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE.
“I think that as long as the vegetarian and the vegan diet are well-planned — the most important piece — it can provide adequate nutrition for children’s health and growth,” says Perry.
Kids can thrive on a plant-based diet if you understand your children’s nutritional needs, get support, and learn meal-prep tips.
For infants, the main sources of protein and nutrients are breast milk and iron-fortified formula (soy formula for vegan infants). Alternative milks are not recommended until after the first year because they lack important nutrients for health, growth and development, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
After 12 months, infants can be weaned from breast milk with a full-fat, soy-based milk fortified with calcium and vitamins B-12 and D.
When it’s time to introduce solid foods, replace meat with beans and rice, quinoa, tofu, and nut or seed butters as protein sources, recommends Romig. Vegetarians can add fresh cheese and eggs, too.
Toddlers are picky eaters, so “if your child eats only pasta and white bread, she could develop vitamin deficiencies,” says Romig. “I’m an ardent believer in making sure that children get the recommended amount of protein, because I’ve seen too many health problems occur with insufficient amounts.”
Vegetarians who eat eggs or dairy products get protein and other essential nutrients through their diet, but that’s trickier for vegans, she explains. They rely on a combination of beans and whole grains.
If your child isn’t willing to try new foods, Perry advises “waiting until she accepts a broad range of foods before going fully plant-based.”
Support for supplements
The biggest nutrient concerns for plant-based diets are protein, calcium, vitamins B-12, vitamin D, and iron.
“Meet with a registered dietitian to ask questions and receive suggestions,” says Perry, “and inform your pediatrician about the diet to look at vitals for proper growth.
“Between the dietitian and the pediatrician, they’ll be able to assess whether a supplement is needed in the diet.”
Consult with a nutritionist who specializes in plant-based diets or somebody who has made it work.
“Before you simply cut out meat, especially if this is new to the family, consult with someone experienced in your family who has successfully executed a plant-based diet,” Romig suggests.
Eat more healthy fats
In most meat-based diets, people get too much saturated fat and not enough unsaturated fat, but in a strict vegan diet it’s the reverse; it’s much harder to get saturated fat into the diet, explains Romig.
“To ensure healthy brain development and cellular functions, about 10 percent of total fat intake should be from saturated fat,” she says, adding that coconut oil and coconut milk are the best sources for that.
About 15 percent of the diet should come from proteins and 30 percent from fat, of which 10 percent should be saturated. Carbohydrates make up the remainder.
Variety is key
You may have to offer your kids some foods multiple times, or in different forms, before they like them. Or they may not like one leafy green but may like another. So provide a variety of foods, suggests Dinshah.
“You can serve a variety of things at meals, like a salad bar, so people can pick what they want,” she says.
Lynda Dell is a freelance writer.