Parenting is challenging enough without the addition of raising your kids in a way that’s vastly different from the social norm. Especially when it comes to food. If you’re looking for a place to start when it comes to plant-based nutrition for kids, I’ve got you covered.
I’m a registered dietitian, and I love all things food and nutrition. But it wasn’t until I pursued an education in public health that I began to understand how certain foods I had believed were healthy were actually harmful to our health, and also harmful to the planet, and animals.
So my husband and I decided to take the plant-based plunge, and then to bring our kids along with us. We learned a few things about how to do it (some of them the hard way!).
You Can Raise Kids on Plants!
As our journey unfolded, we learned that adopting a lifestyle that doesn’t match the societal norm has its challenges. And when you bring kids into the mix, well, there’s an added layer of fear and uncertainty involved — especially when it comes to nutrition.
I’m happy to say that two healthy boys later, we’re confident in our ability to raise thriving kids without animal products.
Because raising plant-based kids can be such a misunderstood and polarizing topic, I’ve answered some of the most frequently asked nutrition-related questions below.
Note: This post is simply a starting point and isn’t intended to be used as individual nutrition or medical advice. Please consult your pediatrician and local registered dietitian to make sure your child’s individual needs are being met, which may include tailored dietary supplement recommendations.
Answers to 5 Questions About A Plant Based Diet for Kids
#1 — Is It Safe to Raise Kids on an Entirely Plant-Based Diet?
The short answer: Yes!
In fact, professional nutrition and health organizations around the world agree that vegetarian and vegan diets can be absolutely suitable for all ages and stages. Here are just a few of them:
- The U.S Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says, “… appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
- The British Dietetic Association says, “… it is possible to follow a well-planned, plant-based, vegan friendly diet that supports healthy living in people of all ages, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding.”
- The Dietitians Association of Australia says, “With planning, those following a vegan diet can cover all their nutrient bases.”
- And the Canadian Paediatric Society says, “Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets with appropriate attention to specific nutrient components can provide a healthy alternative lifestyle at all stages of fetal, infant, child and adolescent growth.”
As with any diet, a bit of attention and planning are important to make sure that your children get the nutrients they need.
#2 — Does a Plant-Based Diet Lack Certain Important Nutrients?
With some important (but easily addressable) considerations outlined below, a plant-based diet can adequately provide all the nutrients that the average kid needs.
A common assumption is that adopting a plant-based diet will result in vitamin B12 deficiency. While vegans and vegetarians do tend to have a higher risk for B12 deficiency than omnivores, there are simple remedies that ensure you and your family won’t fall prey to this problem..
And by the way, B12 deficiency isn’t just a risk for vegetarians. Research suggests that at least six to 20% of the United States and United Kingdom populations are B12 deficient (and 70 to 80% in countries like Africa, Asia, and India).
Vitamin B12 is extremely important for brain, bone, and blood health. It’s widely found in animal products and is made by anaerobic bacteria. Animals obtain B12 primarily from bacterial contamination of their food, eating other animals’ waste, and absorbing the B12 made by bacteria in their own intestines.
So where does a plant-powered eater get their B12?. Many plant products are B12-fortified, including certain non-dairy milks and nutritional yeasts. The amounts can vary, so checking the label is important to make sure your child is getting enough daily. The most reliable source of vitamin B12 is a supplement, which can be taken daily or a few times per week depending on the dose. Vitamin B12 is best absorbed in smaller amounts consumed more regularly. It’s generally recommended to give children a sublingual supplement daily.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Essential for the brain, eyes, and heart, omega-3 fats (and especially the long chain omega-3s, DHA and EPA) are primarily found in things like seafood or fish oil. However, those on a plant-based diet can also get them from microalgae-derived omega-3 supplements.
Ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds provide ALA, a precursor that your and your children’s bodies can use to make EPA and DHA.These are great foods to incorporate into your family’s regular routine. But since people vary in how efficiently they convert ALA to the longer chain omega-3s, it’s important for most plant-powered eaters to take supplementary EPA and DHA. The algae-based versions are readily available and optimal.
If you live in a region where your kids enjoy a healthy dose of outdoor sun most of the year, vitamin D supplementation may not be necessary. But for most of us (plant-based or not), it’s probably not a bad idea to have serum vitamin D levels checked at a wellness exam to know for sure.
Many plant milks, cereals, and orange juices are fortified with vitamin D. Vitamin D supplements are of course readily available and inexpensive.
Note: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all breastfed infants are supplemented with 400 IU of vitamin D daily to prevent deficiency, until other sources of vitamin D can be added to their diet.
Editor’s note: Here’s a resource for kids who don’t like pills. Complement is a 100% vegan source of EPA, DHA, D3, and B12 – in a convenient spray that can be taken directly or added to food or beverages. Find out more here. Remember that it’s recommended to talk to your family health professional before starting or changing a child’s supplement regimen.
There are several reasons for this. Non-heme iron found in plant foods is less bioavailable than the heme iron found in animal foods, meaning less is absorbed. Vitamin C-rich foods help boost iron absorption and can be eaten with iron-containing foods (e.g., lentil soup with cabbage or broccoli).
Plant-based diets can be high in compounds that may work against iron absorption, like phytates (found in certain grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds) and oxalates (found in certain vegetables like Swiss chard and spinach). However, the research is mixed on the extent of the impact, and the amounts in foods can vary widely. Some research suggests that soaking legumes and steaming or boiling darky leafy greens can reduce phytate and oxalate content. I don’t think this is something to obsess over. Even those foods that are higher in iron-inhibiting compounds still contain iron — it’s just that not as much will be absorbed from them (so again, offering a wide variety of iron-rich foods is a good idea).
Still, many professionals suggest that vegetarians need 1.8 times more iron than omnivores. This can make meeting iron needs more challenging for plant-based kids. However, iron is found in many plant foods, and a few adjustments to your family’s routine can help enhance absorption. And whether your family is plant-based or not, iron is a good thing to discuss with a family doctor. Getting your child’s iron levels tested every few years could be advisable. (See more about iron, recommended requirements, and how to boost your body’s ability to absorb iron, here.)
Omnivores get most of their iodine from animal products because iodine-containing solutions are used to clean cows and farm equipment (ultimately ending up in the meat or dairy products).
Plant-based kids can obtain iodine from iodized salt, miso, some sea vegetables (though the amount can be inconsistent and certain species may contain arsenic), or most reliably from an iodine-containing supplement. The salt used in processed foods in the United States is not typically iodized.
#3 — Isn’t Cow’s Milk a Critical Source of Nutrients for Kids?
We’re led to believe that cow’s milk is a necessary part of our diet, especially for growing kids (“got milk?”).
Two reasons that whole milk is recommended for most weaned children between one and two years old are because 1) It’s a calorically-dense food that provides nutrients, including calcium, fat, and protein, and 2) It’s affordable and widely accessible for most people.
After age two, it’s often recommended to switch to a cow’s milk with a lower fat content… which we know many humans then continue to drink all the way into adulthood without a second thought.
And while it’s true that cow’s milk is one source of essential nutrients for growing kids, it’s not the only way to get these nutrients.
In fact, plants are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.
Dark leafy green vegetables, oranges, calcium-set tofu, nuts, and seeds are excellent sources of calcium. Healthy fats can be found in avocados, soy foods, and nut butters. Beans, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and tofu provide iron.
And there are many downsides to drinking dairy, including ethical, environmental, and health concerns.
Research shows that cow’s milk can increase a child’s risk for iron-deficiency anemia. There is also evidence that it can increase a child’s risk for developing type 1 diabetes, as well as becoming obese, largely due to its excessive protein content. Cow’s milk has also been linked to early puberty, which could increase cancer risk later in life.
And as for the claim that calcium-rich cow’s milk builds strong bones, well, not so much. A 2012 study published in JAMA looked at fracture rates among 6,712 adolescents. Physically active kids who consumed the most cow’s milk experienced more bone fractures than kids who consumed less. The relationship between higher milk consumption and more bone fractures has also been seen among adults. And an 18-year prospective study on over 72,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study cohort found no protective effect of dairy consumption on fractures.
If you like the idea of milk but would prefer it to be dairy-free, there are plenty of plant-based milk alternatives. For more of my thoughts about plant-based milk alternatives for kids, see this article.
#4 — How Do Kids Get Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet?
Let’s clear up a misconception first.
Animal products are widely touted as the gold standard for high-quality protein, but again, they’re not the only foods on the planet that offer this important nutrient. Plants are in the protein game, too.
- Tempeh, 3 ounces = 16 grams
- Lentils, ¼ cup = 13 grams
- Soy Milk, 1 cup = 12 grams
- Tofu, 3 ounces = 8 grams
- Peanut Butter, 2 Tbsp = 7 grams
- Almonds, ¼ cup = 6 grams
- Edamame, ¼ cup shelled = 4.5 grams
- Green Peas, ½ cup = 4 grams
- Kidney Beans, ½ cup = 3.5 grams
- Chia Seeds, 1 Tbsp = 3 grams
All plants contain all nine essential (and all non-essential) amino acids, the building blocks of protein. They may just contain smaller amounts of certain ones, like lysine (but this can be found in pumpkin seeds, beans, soy, quinoa, and pistachios). These are called limiting amino acids. Nonetheless, the body takes the amino acids it needs and configures them to make protein — regardless of where they came from.
Furthermore, the idea that plant foods need to be combined to make “complete” proteins is a myth. This originated from a misstatement made in the 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. There is now a lot of evidence that the intentional combining of “complementary proteins” from plants has never been necessary, and Lappé has retracted her statement.
And if that’s not enough, research says that as long as caloric requirements are met and a wide variety of plant foods are consumed, protein deficiency is highly unlikely.
#5 — Are There Risks with Feeding Soy Products to Children?
Soy is a misunderstood and widely debated food.
One of the chief reasons is that it contains isoflavones (sometimes called plant estrogens) that can attach to estrogen receptors in your cells. Some people claim that this could have detrimental impacts on a child’s development and long-term health. Some of the biggest concerns are that soy will lead to cancer, reproductive issues, and give boys female traits. But what’s the truth?
Consuming relatively unprocessed soy foods has largely been shown to have either a neutral or protective effect against certain cancers and other diseases. Research shows that soy consumption can reduce the risk of endometriosis and can lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
Feminizing effects on men are an anomaly and have only been seen among soy-sensitive individuals when consumed in consistently excessive amounts. Enlarged breast tissue has been observed in adult men consuming over twelve to fourteen servings of soy per day, and the effects were reversed when consumption was reduced.
So, what’s the bottom line with soy for kids? There’s no convincing evidence that incorporating minimally processed soy foods as a regular part of the diet is unsafe for children, or that it causes adverse effects on their development.
To reduce exposure to pesticides, GMOs, and excessive additives, however, I suggest that families choose organic, whole soy foods as much as possible (e.g., tempeh, edamame, sprouted and pressure cooked soybeans, soy milk, and tofu).
Nourish Your Plant-Based Kids With Confidence
There are so many benefits to raising plant-powered families, and a whole foods, plant-based diet can nourish a child well.
Plant-based kids can grow up with a reduced risk for chronic diseases. They’ll have a solid understanding of empathy, compassion, and environmental stewardship. They’ll have the knowledge and skills to make healthier food choices for a lifetime. And I’d like to think that plant-based kids are well-equipped to help make the world better for themselves and future generations.
Of course, as in all things, remember this: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that is best for everyone. Pay attention, seek help where needed, and never stop learning. Because parenting can humble all of us!
Note: If you’re interested in more individually-tailored support for your family, please reach out to a registered dietitian who is knowledgeable about a plant based diet for kids. You can search for one here or here (or email me and I’ll help connect you with someone!). You can also find many free dietitian-created resources for feeding vegetarian kids here. And Brenda Davis, RD, and Vesanto Melina, RD, included a wealth of insights on how to be healthfully vegan at every age (including infancy, childhood and adolescence) in their landmark book, Becoming Vegan.
Tell me below:
- What other questions do you have about plant-based nutrition for kids?