A plant-based diet is a diet consisting mostly or entirely of plant based foods. Plant-based diets can follow a variety of patterns – from low meat intake, to no meat or animal product intake. Or a strictly vegan diet versus a diet that’s just rich in plants.
So is there a right or wrong eating pattern for kids when it comes to eating plant based?
Benefits of Plant-Based Diets
Protecting animals and improving animal welfare
Perhaps saving animals is the most obvious reason for eating plant based and very popular among teens.
What About Weight Management?
One thing I often see is teenagers going vegetarian or vegan with the sole desire to lose weight. This is often not a noted benefit of a plant-based diet. Yes, if you replace high-fat animal products with more fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains you can end up with that result.
More typically, especially for children, those foods are replaced with processed vegan alternatives and processed snack foods that happen to be meat- and dairy-free. But a vegan cupcake is still a cupcake!
In addition, replacing protein sources with higher carb foods reduces the feeling of fullness, so you may actually end up eating more. Therefore, if weight loss is your only reason for not eating meat, I’d suggest thinking twice before drastically altering your food intake.
Nutrients of Concern
Heme iron is found in red meat and animal products, therefore following a vegan or vegetarian diet poses a risk of inadequate iron intake. Non-heme iron in animal products is not as bioavailable to the body. Regular intake of beans and legumes, fortified grains and iron-rich fruits and vegetables is necessary. Also, pairing iron with vitamin C-rich foods helps with absorption and is highly recommended.
Calcium is of utmost importance for growing bones. A child following a plant-based diet that includes dairy products will likely have no trouble meeting calcium needs.
If avoiding dairy, a child will want fortified alternatives like soy or pea protein products. Almonds, dark leafy greens and fortified tofu are also good calcium sources; though the quantity you would have to eat to meet needs is high. A calcium supplement is often warranted for exclusively plant-eating children.
B12 is not regularly found in any plant foods. Fortified cereals, soymilk and nutritional yeast are ways to get this vitamin in, but supplementation is often needed for those following a full vegan diet.
Vitamin D is found in limited foods aside from milk. You can use a fortified milk alternative or fortified orange juice. But supplementation is often recommended, especially if you live in areas of the country without regular sunshine.
Protein is the first thing most people worry about when going plant based. But there are so many non-meat protein sources available:
The important thing is knowing how to incorporate these in adequate quantities. We don’t want kids getting all their protein from protein bars and shakes. The focus should be on whole food, protein sources.
How Much Protein Does My Kid Need?
A plant-rich diet is beneficial for all ages and is absolutely a recommended eating pattern. However, when you take it as far as to remove an entire food group from the diet, you’re adding an extra layer of challenges – nutritionally, socially and behaviorally.
It can be done, but takes extra attention and meal planning to make sure all nutrient needs are being met – especially in periods of rapid growth and development. A healthy vegetarian or vegan meal plan can have a positive impact, but it’s not as simple as just not eating meat.
I also feel it is important to be cognizant of any absolute beliefs with food. The idea of avoiding numerous foods could potentially lead to disordered eating behaviors in children and teens. and it’s vital for parents to assess the reason behind these choices.
The rationale behind the plant-based eating is important. Cultural, ethical and environmental reasons are all of value and should always be respected. But if for health and nutrition reasons alone, I’d recommend a plant-rich diet with occasional lean animal protein sources. And if possible, I always recommend that the whole family follow the same eating patterns.