Updated: Jul 14
What I find fascinating about raising plant-based children is how passionate people get about this subject. I’ve received messages of hate calling me everything from irresponsible to reckless.
Then, seeing the same people who critique this lifestyle feed Lucky Charms, cow’s milk, muffins, fast food and sugar ladened ultra-processed snacks to their children leaves me feeling quite confused. All diets come with their list of pros and cons and there are many nuances to consider. The typical or standard diet has the benefits of being cheap, convenient, highly palatable and popular with children. It has the cons of providing over 60% of calories through ultra-processed foods, of being excessively high in sugar, salt, saturated fat and of being deficient in fiber, antioxidants and polyphenols and of leading to an over 65% rate of overweight and obesity. Plant-based diets also have pros and cons. They help prevent cancer, decrease cholesterol, hypertension, obesity, all-cause mortality, auto-immune conditions and inflammatory parameters. When a plant-based diet is done without any planning, it does create a risk for deficiencies in certain vitamins that are not as abundant, like iodine and B12 for example. Other nutrients of concern will be addressed below and these possible deficiencies can easily be covered by a few simple tricks.
The motivation for eating a plant-based diet goes much deeper than the amazing health benefits the diet provides. Children are naturally connected to animals and the environment and instinctively want to do what they can to protect both.
Explaining to children how our food choices not only affects our health, but also affects the health of other sentient beings on this planet is not an easy task. Not all children are ready to hear about the harsh realities of our food system, but when they are, they can find solace in knowing they’re doing their part.
A few generations ago, little was known about the health effects of vegetarian or vegan diets. Data was scarce and people adopting these diets typically did it for ethical reasons more than health reasons. Often, those adopting a plant-based vegan diet purely for ethical reasons aren’t spending too much time with careful planning. Fast forward a few generations, and now we know that when properly planned, plant-predominant diets are likely to be the healthiest dietary patterns for the prevention of chronic diseases that make up our top killers, as well as the best diets in term of reducing carbon footprint and animal cruelty. What better gift to give to your kids. In our house, my daughters eat what we eat when they’re at home, but we don‘t restrict any foods when they’re at friends house. They eat cake at birthday parties, and vegan cake if the party is at our house!
Plant-Based Diets And Health
If you’ve been reading my blog, then you already know most of this. « Plant-based diet » is an umbrella term that encompasses a range or spectrum of plant-forward dietary patterns that include flexitarianism to veganism, and everything in between. We have huge prospective cohort studies and even systematic reviews and meta-analysis showing that the benefits of the plant-based spectrum are dose-dependent. This means that the more plants you consume, the greater the health effects. If you can’t imagine ever cutting out meat or dairy in your children’s diet, then remember that simply decreasing these foods and replacing them with nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, legumes and soy products is likely to have huge health benefits for your children’s current and future selves. The benefits can even start in utero, and studies suggest that babies born to plant-based mothers who adopt a well-planned plant-based diet already start their lives with a health head start.
Macros In Vegan Kids
Early childhood is no time to fear fat. Kids between ages 2 and 18 need about a third of their calories from fat. These 30% of daily calories should be obtained through foods containing healthy fats, like nuts, seeds and their respective butters, as well as avocados, olives and vegetable oils. Fat should be present in every meal and snack throughout the day. Kids grow quickly and it’s imperative that they have access to healthy calorie dense foods containing unsaturated fat. Fat soluble vitamins, which include vitamins A,D,E and K, need fat for proper absorption.
We tend to focus on getting adequate and even excess protein as adults. The situation for kids is very different. They don’t need as much protein as we’re lead to believe and can easily meet daily requirements through a varied plant-based diet. Kids from 1 to 3 years old need about 13 grams of protein per day. Children from 4 to 8 need 19 grams and those between 9 and 13 need 34 grams (Health Canada, 2006). All plants contain protein and as long as they’re getting a variety of plant foods and sufficient calories, they’ll be hitting their protein requirements. Including protein sources like beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and whole grains will assist in hitting protein goals. Fortified soy milk is a great and convenient way of helping attain protein requirements, as well as nuts, seeds, and nut butters. Meat alternatives do play a role in my daughters’ diets, although we aim to prioritize minimally processed ones first.
If your kids are on a plant-based diet, then they’ll never have to worry about hitting their carb requirements. Plants are mostly carbs, some simple carbs and others are complex carbs. The most important thing about carb intake is not the quantity, but the quality. Choose unprocessed carbs as often as is practical. All of the plant-based food groups contain sufficient carbs and as long as your kids are getting enough calories, they’re getting enough carbs. The only carb to be aware of is fiber. Now, remember that 95% of our adult population is fiber deficient, due to the high amount of animal products and processed foods we eat. Kids are no exception to this rule. The only caveat is that if your kids are on a plant-based diet, they’ll naturally be getting plenty of fiber. Kids on high fiber diets might feel fuller sooner and this might crowd out the higher calorie dense foods and fats they need for proper growth. Fiber is super healthy and most kids don’t get enough, but too much of a good thing might prove to be an issue as well.
Micros In Vegan Kids
Parents feeding plant-based diets to their children have to pay attention to a few specific nutrients. If the diet is properly planned, this becomes a non-issue, but parents of plant-based kids can’t just « wing it » and hope for the best, since deficiencies in these nutrients could be problematic. Also recognize that these deficiencies can also apply to children on any diet. Two specific nutrients, B12 and vitamin D, must be obtained through regular consumption of fortified foods three times a day, or through supplementation. As an insurance policy, we decided to supplement our daughters with both of these vitamins in addition to the routine use of fortified foods. Since getting B12 and vitamin D solely through fortified foods requires a lot of planning, I strongly suggest that you use supplements to ensure your growing kids meet their needs!
This is the most common deficiency world wide, no matter your dietary pattern. Iron is important for many bodily processes including the formation of red blood cells and is also directly related to brain development and growth. Make sure to include iron rich foods like chickpeas, beans, lentils, peas, dark leafy greens, whole grains, nuts and fortified cereals. Adding vitamin C rich foods to the same meals will help improve iron absorption. Finding iron on plant-based diets is super easy once you know where to look!
Kids need calcium for strong bones, not cow’s milk. Also, plant-based soy milks are fortified with calcium and contain the same amounts as cow‘s milk. Their protein content also makes for an excellent choice for growing kids. Kids from 1 to 3 years require 700 mg per day and a cup of soy milk contains almost half that amount. Other foods like calcium-set tofu, leafy greens, nuts, seeds and beans are good sources and can be easily included in the diet. Tahini and hummus also make for great sources that are school safe for those allergic to nuts.
Iodine supports thyroid function and soil depletion has led to unreliable sources being present in the plants we eat. We make sure that our children get enough iodine through their daily multivitamin. Since they consume very low quantities of processed foods, which accounts for 70% of sodium intake, we let them use fortified table salt on their vegetables if needed. Since children’s tastebuds are easily hijacked by added salt or sugar, try to delay adding them to foods as long as possible so they can experience and enjoy natural taste and flavours. We sprinkle a pinch of kelp powder, an iodine powerhouse, on their soups, meals and smoothies and it goes unnoticed.
We make sure to include nuts and seeds as often as possible. Hemp, chia and flaxseeds are great sources of plant ALA. Walnuts are also great sources of these healthy fats. ALA from plant sources are then converted to DHA and EPA, which are important for heart, eye and brain development. Since conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA are highly variable, parents may want to consider supplementing with omega-3s, no matter their dietary pattern. Personally, we choose to supplement with a vegan algae based omega-3 for both of our daughters.
My Plant-Based Kid Conclusion
Not only are plant-based diets healthy in kids, they also create a deep rooted connection with the environment and animals around them. When you feel they’re ready, consider having a discussion with your kids about your motivations for adopting a plant-forward diet. Kids are naturally connected to their planet and to animals and adopting a plant-based diet will likely be easier for them if you start them off at a young age. Planning any diet is important in order to prevent unnecessary deficiencies and plant-based diets are no different. The nutrients of concern can easily be found in plant-based foods or supplements. There is no shame in using supplementation if necessary. Soil depletion and sterilization of our water sources have led to unreliable levels of minerals like iodine and vitamins like B12. Aim for fortified foods and supplements to ensure adequate intake in your plant-based kids. Both of our daughters are thriving on plant-based diets and have had great improvements in their asthma, eczema and overall health. They are both proud to call themselves plant-based vegans and are confidently spreading their message to other young kids everywhere.
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. I'm a two-time world championship qualified athlete and you can follow my fitness journey there! You can even access the resources section by becoming a member. It's free and there, you can download free resources like my plant-based recipe eBook!
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Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱