Plant-based diets, like vegetarian or vegan diets, are becoming a lot more popular. But with the rise in popularity, many parents may be wondering: Are these diets healthy? According to Children’s Minnesota registered dieticians, Caitlyn Talbert, RDN, LD and Kelsey Vierow, RDN, LD, the answer is yes!
“Vegetarian and vegan diets can meet the nutrition needs for people of any age, and with the popularity of meat substitutes on the rise, making these choices is easier than ever,” explained Vierow.
Do kids need meat to get protein?
Most Americans eat more protein than their bodies actually need to be healthy. In fact, people oftentimes get protein from foods other than meat and not even know it! There is protein in beans, eggs, whole grains, dairy, tofu, nuts and so much more. Because of this, kids who have a vegetarian or vegan diet can definitely find protein sources outside of meat and still meet the suggested daily value without a worry.
What vitamins and minerals are essential to a healthy diet?
As with any healthy diet, eating a wide variety of foods is key to getting the appropriate vitamins and minerals. This means that kids should eat different types of fruits, vegetables and grains each day. If your child is a picky eater, talk to your health care provider about giving them a multivitamin each day. This will help ensure all your bases are covered if you are worried about their vitamin intake.
Below is a list of nutrients typically found in meat and poultry that plant-based diets may lack, and great examples of foods with these nutrients that aren’t meat.
Many of us were told to drink milk so our bones could grow strong. This is because milk and other dairy products are great sources of calcium, which is important for bone development. Calcium is also important for heart health and nerve function. There are many calcium rich foods that still fit into a vegan diet:
- Dark leafy green veggies like broccoli.
- Fortified nut or soy milks.
- Fortified cereals.
Like calcium, vitamin D also helps kids develop strong bones. Vitamin D also helps kids’ immune systems. But did you know? Our bodies can make vitamin D naturally after exposure to the sun’s UVB rays.
Aside from the sun’s rays, kids can also get vitamin D from fortified cow, nut or soy milks, or fortified orange juice.
Iron is a vital nutrient that helps properly move oxygen from the lungs to the rest of our bodies. But red meats like beef are not the only sources of iron.
It can also be found it fortified cereals; legumes like lentils, soy and chickpeas, and dark green vegetables.
Zinc is important for normal growth and development, as well as immune system function.
Foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fortified breakfast cereals and soy products are great plant-based sources of zinc.
Vitamin B12 is important for brain function and red blood cell formation. For vegetarian diets, dairy products such as cheese and milk, or eggs, are great sources of B12. Because many plant-based foods are not fortified with B12, vegan children may need B12 supplements because this vitamin is only found naturally in meat and dairy products.
Protein helps build and repair the body’s tissues and proteins such as hormones and enzymes. It’s also a great source of energy aside from carbohydrates and fats. Here are great sources of meatless protein that your family may already regularly enjoy:
- Nuts and nut butters.
- Seeds like sunflower seeds or chia seeds.
- Soy products.
- Whole grains like quinoa.
How to switch to a plant-based diet safely
If your child or your family is considering switching to a plant-based diet, remember that the change doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and it doesn’t have to happen overnight. You can start with swapping out a few meals a week with plant-based foods to familiarize your family with new recipes and ingredients.
Eating less meat and dairy products can have health benefits for the whole family, regardless if your family wants to cut out meat or animal products completely. If you have concerns about your child’s diet or eating habits, talk to their pediatrician or schedule a visit with a pediatric dietitian.