Since a vegan diet excludes all animal products, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy, parents are naturally concerned that their vegan children may not get the nutrients they need to stay at the top of their games.
While that’s a reasonable concern, it’s important to note that a plant-based eating pattern is a top choice among health authorities, as referenced by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says Maria Conley, a registered dietitian and functional medicine nutritionist at Henry Ford Health.
Supporting Vegan Kids
If you look at the numbers, adopting a vegan diet is a top nutrition trend, even among kids and teens. According to a 2014 Harris Poll Survey, more than half a million youths between the ages of 8 and 18 are vegan and another 15 million kids eat vegetarian meals one or two times a week.
“More and more consumers, both adults and children, are taking an interest in how their food choices can impact social issues, such as environmental sustainability and animal welfare,” Conley says. It’s a way for kids to use their voices, to stand up for a cause and to establish themselves as individuals — and that’s something to support and celebrate with these six strategies:
- Start a dialogue: Don’t balk when your child announces he wants to shift to a vegan diet. Instead, have a conversation about what inspired him to change the way he eats. Maybe his girlfriend is vegan. Maybe he’s concerned about animal welfare. Maybe he wants to lose weight before spring training begins. No matter what the reason, understanding the thinking behind the switch can help you get on board with his decision and ensure he stays healthy.
- Focus on the perks: Compared to a non-vegetarian eating pattern, vegetarian diets include more fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. In fact, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an appropriately-planned vegetarian diet is healthful and nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits during all stages of the life cycle. While a vegan diet is more restrictive than vegetarian, it’s reasonable to assume the same perks hold true for this eating pattern, Conley says.
- Stock your kitchen: Keep whole, unprocessed, vegan-friendly foods on hand. Instead of processed snack foods, stock your kitchen with healthful choices, such as grab-and-go fruit, whole-grain crackers, canned beans and bean spreads such as hummus, sliced veggies, nuts and seeds and their butters, and tasty spreads like guacamole or baba ghanoush.
- Try “Meatless Mondays”: You don’t have to be vegan to try “meatless Mondays.” Just decide not to eat meat one day each week. If you want to get really adventurous, have the whole family go vegan that day, too. “It’s a great way to support your child without dramatically changing everyone’s lifestyle,” Conley says.
- Get creative: Prepare meals that everyone in the family enjoys and occasionally keep non-vegan items on the side. “Rather than casseroles, which may have meat or cheese already mixed in, prepare buildable meals like baked potato bars, tacos, pizza and versatile pasta dishes,” Conley says. “That way, you can cook animal protein and put it on the side for non-vegan family members to enjoy.”
- Let your child take charge: Depending on the age of your child, let her take responsibility for adhering to her own standards. “Similar to implementing any type of lifestyle change, it’s important to set realistic expectations and define responsibility related to the change,” Conley says. “Encourage your child to be hands-on in the kitchen, at the grocery store and more. After all, this was a decision they chose to make.”
Keep it Healthy
Just because a diet is vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy. A child who loads up on fake meat and French fries instead of burgers and milkshakes isn’t doing any favors for her body. Take a supportive role and guide your children toward healthful vegan decisions that emphasize a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Here’s where to get these key nutrients in vegan form:
- Protein: Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, legume pastas, nuts and seeds
- Calcium: Fortified plant-based beverages (unsweetened soy milk, almond milk and oat milk) and tofu or tempeh, as well as green leafy vegetables like collard and turnip greens, kale and broccoli
- Iron: Fortified cereals, beans, seeds, leafy green vegetables and fortified tofu. Pair with vitamin C-rich foods (strawberries, bell peppers, citrus fruits and tomatoes) to enhance iron absorption.
- Vitamin B12: Fortified breakfast cereals, soy milk and nutritional yeast. Consult with your child’s doctor about whether taking additional supplements are needed.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Made by the body from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, chia seed, hemp seed, walnuts and soybeans. Talk with your child’s doctor to determine if additional supplementation is appropriate.
Whether your child is dedicated to following a vegan diet for the long haul or they’re experimenting with it for a short stint, it’s important to be supportive.
“A child who shows interest in changing their diet to include more plant-based foods can be a wonderful learning opportunity,” Conley says. “Together, you may discover new foods as well as meals and recipes that nourish the whole family.”
To talk with your pediatrician or primary care provider about your child’s diet or growth, make an appointment at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).