Vegan and vegetarian diets have grown in popularity. But while they may be good for your health, the environment, and animal welfare, are they good for growing bodies?
“A plant-based diet tends to be higher in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—and all of these nutrients can help lower risk of chronic disease,” Amy Gorin, an inclusive plant-based registered dietitian, tells Fox News. “By following a plant-based diet, you are teaching your child about sustainability and protecting the earth.”
“Raising a kid as a vegan or vegetarian has many long-term health benefits when done correctly and really focusing on high-nutrient and wholesome foods. It sets up a child for a lifetime of healthy habits and focusing on foods that fight information and fend off disease,” echoes Tammy Lakatos Shames, registered dietitian nutritionist andone half of the duo, The Nutrition Twins. “Cutting back on high-fat animal products and meat products can have long-term health benefits as well, including reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.”
There have been many, many studies that show the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, says Gorin, noting that these benefits run the gamut from enhanced heart health to improved blood pressure numbers, weight management, and even helping to prevent type 2 diabetes. “In particular, research shows that vegan children most often are less obese than non-vegan children,” she adds.
Despite these potential health wins, Gorin cautions that it’s extremely important to know about and address dietary modifications when raising a child vegan or vegetarian. “These modifications can affect how a child grows—for instance, calcium is extremely important to teeth and bone health, and vitamin D is also very important for both bone health and even energy levels. Nutrients that are of particular importance to pay attention to include protein, iron, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B12 and omega-3s,” she says.
“Also, growing children need a lot of calories—and plant-based foods tend to be lower in calories than many animal-based ones,” she continues, adding that it’s important to plan your child’s meals so that they’re eating enough calories and getting proper nutrients.
More to consider on the nutrition front: “A review study shows that vegan children are at risk for inadequate intake of protein, calories, long-chain fatty acids, iron, zinc, vitamin D, iodine, calcium and vitamin B12. However, another study found limited evidence that vegan children can take in enough calories, protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folate,” Gorin says.
Gorin explains that you can’t “wing a vegan diet” and it’s crucial to plan out snacks and meals to include necessary nutrients.
To help address this, Gorin recommends incorporating a source of protein at every meal and snacking occasion. Some of her top picks for vegans include tofu, edamame, tempeh, beans and lentils. For vegetarian eaters she recommends, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese.
“It’s also really helpful to employ some ‘tricks’ to increase absorption of some of these nutrients. For instance, plant-based iron isn’t as easily absorbed by the body,” she says. “But if you pair a source of plant-based iron, such as spinach, with a source of vitamin C, such as lemon juice, the vitamin C will help increase the body’s absorption of the iron.”
Additionally, Gorin suggests buying fortified foods, such as breakfast cereal, which tend to contain nutrients such as vitamin D. “Fortified beverages, such as 100% orange juice and soy milk, may also contain calcium,” she says.
Fiber is also a nutrient to zoom in on when considering a vegan or vegetarian diet for youngsters. “Fiber is terrific for good health, but children have small stomachs and fiber can fill them up quickly. Plant-based foods tend to be higher in fiber. So it’s a good idea to feed your plant-based child frequent meals and snacks,” she says.
Lakatos Shames also has advice from firsthand experience: “As a mom who has raised a vegetarian and at times a vegan child, the most important thing is to focus on getting plenty of nutrients,” she says.
“Many parents or kids call themselves a vegetarian and then fill up on chips and pretzels,” she adds. “Focus on getting all the colors of the rainbow in your produce, protein sources like tofu and beans, and if you’re including eggs, this can be a great source of protein, as well. Also work to get in good-for-you fats from avocados, nuts, and seeds.”
It’s also likely that your youngster will need to take supplements to make up for some of the nutrients that an animal-based diet is naturally higher in, Gorin comments. “Your child may benefit from a multivitamin and perhaps also vitamin D and EPA/DHA omega-3 supplements.”
If your child is making the shift to eating vegan or vegetarian, Gorin stresses the importance of paying attention to their emotions and energy levels. “Every person feels differently on a plant-based diet, and it’s possible that your child may need more protein in order to feel his or her best,” she says.
Gorin says she feels it’s beneficial for kids to explore and decide for themselves what foods they like or dislike.
“Because of this, I veer more toward the inclusive plant-based mindset—meaning focusing on eating a largely plant-based diet but with flexibility to include animal products when needed,” she says.