Helping Children Thrive On A Plant-Based Diet

  • 4 Mins Read
  • Health Conditions
  • Written by: Shama Nimkar
Plant-Based Diet
  • Know your Diet: The differences between vegan, vegetarian and plant-based diets can often be confusing. To help our readers understand their diet better, the article distinguishes each diet from the others.
  • Are plant-based diets safe for children? By looking at various case studies and seeking inputs from Dr. Reshma Shah, we’ve tried to analyse how vegan/plant-based diets can affect children on the basis of various factors like age, weight, height, health etc.
  • Plant-based alternatives: Keeping up with the latest food trend s and giving your child what works best for his/her needs are two different things and this article emphasises on the significance of the latter.
  • Dos and don’ts: By creating a list of dos and don’ts, it imparts a better understanding of planning healthy vegan diets for children and keeps you from making common mistakes found in the early stages of vegan parenting.
  • Ethical Living: Touching up on points like animal cruelty, we aim to make our readers realise the difference they’d be making towards cutting down the numbers of animals being slaughtered every year, just by embracing a plant-based lifestyle.
  • Environment: The article also talks about climate change and how animal rearing has been a vast instigator of the same. The need to use our resources judiciously makes taking up a plant-based approach to foods an ideal lifestyle to lead.
  • Building a healthy relationship with food: Dr. Shah firmly believes that a strong foundation to choosing a healthy lifestyle is letting your child build a healthy relationship with food right from a young age. Delving deeper into the subject, the article discusses different methods that parents can adopt to do this correctly.

Being responsible for your child’s nutrition can be a daunting task. Particularly, if you are a conscious, new-age parent looking to responsibly raise your child on a plant-based diet. Afterall, we as a generation have a larger responsibility at hand to save our planet for the future generations to come so that they don’t have to bear the brunt of our mistakes.

At the recently conducted Asian Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference, Dr Reshma Shah, an award-winning certified Paediatrician and adjunct instructor at Stanford University, took this up in her session titled: Helping Children Thrive On A Plant-Based Diet, where she addressed the concerns of whether raising your child on plant-based foods is actually a good idea.

She also tackled several concerns surrounding the appropriateness of a plant-based diet, given the bad rap it often receives for lacking in nutrients, particularly when the early years are crucial to growth.

In the hour-long session, Dr Shah also elaborated on how parents need to read up and do their research before introducing the plant-based foods approach to their children. Afterall, if followed correctly, the list of health benefits in the long run can be endless.

In fact, Dr Shah also stated that the benefits of following a plant-based diet are not just limited to personal well-being, and are linked to several environment-friendly outcomes. Poultry farming, dairy production and animal rearing are all known to take a serious toll on the earth’s natural resources. Elaborating on this further, Dr Shah stated, “With global warming and climate change on the rise, our every action needs to be directed towards saving the environment and a plant-based lifestyle lets us do exactly that. Ten billion animals are slaughtered every year in the USA. It feels like the world is losing all its compassion. Teaching your child to lead a plant-based or vegan lifestyle means bestowing them with values like kindness, empathy and compassion, which are much needed in today’s world.”

For a more elaborate understanding of Dr Reshma Shah’s views on raising your child on a plant-based diet, read on:

Understand your diet

Now, before setting your child on a vegan path, it is rather important to understand the difference between a vegan, plant-based and vegetarian diet. More often than not, these three terms get conflated, thus leading to highly restrictive diets, refusal to immunisation and fortified foods, which are rather essential to young infants on a plant-based/vegan diet in order to receive proper nutrition.

Vegetarian Diet: This diet consists of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and may include eggs and dairy.

Vegan Diet: This diet is absent of any animal derived foods. All kinds of seafood, meat, dairy products and insect foods such as honey are excluded from this diet. Many people choose to avoid medicines that have animal derivatives too.

Plant-based Diet: This diet is not very different from a vegan diet and focuses on foods derived from plants such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, legumes and seeds. However, it may allow the consumption of animal derived items like medication etc.

The Importance of Following an Appropriate Diet

While there has been a significant attitude shift among people towards a plant-based lifestyle, there is also a large population of people that yet feels sceptical. There may be several reasons for this:

  • fear for health
  • word of mouth
  • conflicting headlines etc.

The internet is flooded with all kinds of information, and one is bound to stumble upon articles describing negative experiences where veganism might not have been portrayed in the best light. For example: An article on the internet narrates the story of a couple whose infant child had to suffer brain damage after being made to follow a plant-based diet. It was only much later that it was found out that the child was fed smoothies, coconut milk, fruit juices, homemade formula and only plant-based foods.

“Yes, it’s all healthy food, but it does not meet the nutrition levels that a child’s body needs. So, you need this diet is not appropriate for an infant at all,” says Dr. Shah.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics unequivocally states that, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. In fact, when planned well, they’re appropriate for individuals in all stages of a life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Furthermore, athletes requiring energy and stamina could also follow this diet.”

Balance is Key

When planning a plant-based diet for your child, it is of utmost importance that it contains proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, lipids (fats), fibre, and all other important nutrients. It is recommended to have a balanced diet because an excess of any food component might have a negative impact on your body. Dr Shah used two case studies to highlight her point:

Case Study 1

The VeChi Diet Study conducted on German children aged 1-3 years aimed to observe the growth between vegetarians and those who followed an omnivorous diet. Researchers found out that growth in all children was normal but most vegetarians were classified as ‘stunted.’ This may have been a result of low energy intake, prolonged breastfeeding, and a low-height gene. While the protein intake was found to be higher in the omnivorous group, the fibre levels of some individuals in the vegetarian group were higher than normal. This imbalance in nutrition is not ideal for a stable body growth.

On the brighter side, there were several advantages that were brought to light via increased studies conducted on vegan diets based on other factors like weight, age and dietary intakes. Healthy sugar and cholesterol levels, ideal calorie intake and improved heart health as well as reduced cardiovascular risk factors are among many others. The next case study is a successful example of the same.

Case Study 2

This was a study conducted in 1990 which examined the growth of vegetarian adolescents in Southern California. The child population of the Seventh-day Adventist Community was studied to determine the difference in the growth pattern between kids that followed omnivorous and vegetarian diets. Surprisingly, it was observed that vegetarian children stood taller than their omnivorous counterparts, finally breaking the belief that meat is necessary for the normal growth of infants and young teenagers.

What parents nurturing their children on a plant-based diet need to keep in mind

In the light of the two case studies Dr. Shah stated, “One thing to keep in mind with earlier studies that reported on inadequate nutrient intakes or poor growth of vegan children is that much of the earlier research focused on communities that followed highly restrictive diets such as macrobiotic or raw food only diets, which would not be appropriate for growing children and even most adults.”

She further laid emphasis on the need to customise your child’s diet to suit his/her body’s needs. “While planning a plant-based or vegan diet for your child, ensure that you’ve factored in any allergies, health conditions, his body type and any weather conditions which may have an impact on their metabolism. Even within a certain type of diet, may it be plant-based or vegan, you might have to work around by excluding a few ingredients and including some more than the rest; basically, whatever works for your child.”

This reiterates the fundamental need to read up and gain as much knowledge as possible when it comes to planning your child’s diet. A well-informed decision is always the right way to go!

Why a plant-based diet is optimal for your child

In her session, Dr Shah upheld another heavily referenced case study to confirm the notion that well-planned plant-based diets are not only safe for children but also may be advantageous over omnivorous diets.

The Farm Study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in the late 1980s was one of the largest studies back in the day, which observed the growth of vegan children in a collective community in Tennessee, with focus on the body’s need for vitamins and minerals. It was revealed that the farm children had normal birth weights and their growth rate was at par with the referenced population. However, the statistics began to fluctuate by the age of 10, as the rate of growth for farm kids dwindled while it remained steady for the referenced group. This was because the farm children were breastfed while the other group was registered with formula fed in their infant years.

These findings were also backed by a study on British children which concluded that upon complete care, a vegan child can just grow and develop as well as a child that follows any other diet. Any rumours related to impaired intellectual functioning were crossed out, making vegan and plant-based diets a safe option for parents and children. It is also said that veganism fights alcoholism, reduces the risk of diseases such as Osteoporosis and Parkinson’s.

Plant-based Alternatives: Dos and Don’ts

Dr Shah reiterates that the primary thing to keep in mind when drawing up a plant-based eating plan for your child is to consult nutritionists and diet experts before getting started or making any major changes to your child’s food habits. “There is a need for vegetarian and vegan organisations to give out sensible dietary advice to their followers. Health professionals also need to be able to offer compassionate, supportive, and evidence-based care for their vegan families,” said Dr Shah.

She further listed the dos and don’ts when it comes to well-planned meals for your child.

  1. DO give your child plant-based milks in exchange for dairy milk. Since milk promotes health and nutrition in the developmental stages, choosing the right milk plays a vital role. Fortified unsweetened soy or pea milk are great due to their high calorie composition, proteins and micronutrients.
  2. DON’T use almond, cashew, rice or oat milk as their primary milk because they don’t comprise adequate nutrition needed during this vulnerable period of growth.
  3. DON’T cut out essential fats from your child’s diet. 30-40% calories in his/her diet should be derived from fat. Low-fat diets are a strict ‘no-no’ for kids. While fibrous foods like fruits, whole grains and beans are healthy, they don’t necessarily meet your child’s energy requirements. Hence, serve those in limited quantities.
  4. DO include whole plant foods as well as vegetable oils, avocado butters, nuts, seeds, and refined grains such as pasta. This renders adequate growth and nutrition. Feed them protein in the form of oatmeal, tofu, legumes, edamame and ensure they receive their daily dose of greens. Leafy vegetables like spinach, are recommended for consumption in average quantities. Broccoli is great for calcium intake.
  5. DON’T assume that plant-based diets are inferior to omnivorous diets due to the need to consume fortified foods. Food fortification is a process that involves adding micronutrients to it. This compensates for any lack of nutrition in your child’s diet and keeps deficiencies at bay. Regulated food fortification was implemented by the US Government back in 1924 when iodine was added to salt to tackle goitre and vitamin D was added to milk to prevent rickets. Thus, calling plant-based diets inherently unsafe, owing to the need of fortified foods is illogical, considering that fortification was introduced to make up for the shortcomings of an omnivorous diet in the first place.
  6. DO make Vitamin B12 a part of your child’s diet as its deficiency can cause brain damage, lethargy, irritability, weakness and low muscle tone. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria and is found in meat, dairy and eggs. In a plant-based diet, it is only possible to consume Vitamin B12 with the help of fortified foods. Getting this vitamin is not an option but an imperative.
  7. DO include foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, originally associated with fish oil but can also be found in walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds for vegetarians. You can also use supplements.

Ethical Living – Empathy and the Environment

While you may have noted down every possible detail you need to wean your child smoothly into adopting a plant-based eating plan, Dr Shah stated that it is also important that you strive to make your child understand the significance of this lifestyle at the right age and enable him to build a healthy relationship with the food they consume.

There are 2 things that your child should be able to realise:

  • first, ethical reasoning behind their food choices
  • Second, devising a method to enjoy their meals.

When your child has reached an age where he can begin to make sense of things, you can sit him down and break down issues like the environmental crisis and how his single life choice can contribute towards making a positive change.

“Did you know that animal agriculture is responsible for over 90% of Amazonian deforestation? It’s the leading cause of rainforest destruction, forest fires, species extinction, ocean dead zones, and water pollution,” Dr Shah pointed out. ‘We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast’ by Jonathan Safran Foer is an excellent read to understand this issue at a deeper level.

“Poultry farming, animal rearing and dairy production, all take a major toll on land and earth’s natural resources,” she added.

In fact, a Harvard research has proven that dairy isn’t even good for your health. It is linked with several paediatric disorders. It also suggests that a large population of people in Africa and South America are lactose intolerant and dairy consumption can trigger cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and obesity. There is a study on the link between diet and disease.

Joyful Eating: Help Your Child Build a Healthy Relationship with Food

With umpteen surveys proving the benefits of following a plant-based lifestyle, it’d be safe to state that you should not have to worry about any side-effects. What should really matter is whether your child enjoys what he eats. This is where good parenting comes into play.

“Parents are often seen bribing their child with ice-creams or cookies to get them to eat a healthy meal first,” said Dr. Shah. “A better approach would be to get your kid accustomed to homemade healthy meals and while you might feel that your child shall refuse to eat what’s served, there’s a solution to that as well. Make family meals fun and exciting; something your child can look forward to,” she adds.

Taking your child to the park and laying across picnic meals is also a great way of building a healthy relationship between your child and the food he eats. “This way, he has only good memories to associate with those meals. A happy environment or surroundings play a major role in developing healthy food habits for your child.”

In fact, you may be surprised to find out that there are several factors that mould a young person’s perception towards food. Weight, size, appearance are a few topics that should be avoided while encouraging someone to adopt a healthy diet. “Associating a habit with weight can lead to developing eating disorders, crash dieting, stress, binge eating, obesity and these are things we definitely don’t want for our children.”

Instead, Dr Shah suggests doing the following:

  • Identify food with health; a long life.
  • Refrain from demonising any ingredient.
  • Teach your kid about eating everything in moderation.
  • Whip up recipes that are healthy yet tickle their taste buds, so that meals are something that your children don’t dread.

Conclusion

On a concluding note, Dr Shah revealed how eating plant-based meals are said to have a positive effect on your mind and body. “They reveal higher energy levels as compared to foods high in sugar and starch, which cause lethargy. Also, push your child to exercise and stay fit as this results in better concentration and being able to work towards your goals.”

Finally, she pointed out that it is important to give your child the freedom to choose his meal. “Lay everything out on the table and let him reach out for what he wants. Nurture and enhance their eating habits slowly and steadily. Lastly, educate them on the importance of plant-based eating with the help of books or videos. Informed actions are good for the conscience and peace of mind.”

Expert Bio

Dr. Reshma Shah is a board-certified paediatrician and adjunct instructor at Stanford University. She obtained her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University and her medical degree from Drexel University College of Medicine. Dr. Shah serves as an instructor for Stanford’s Healthy Living Program and oversees the nutrition curriculum for the Stanford University Paediatric Integrative Medicine Fellowship. She has received teaching awards from Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and from Stanford University School of Medicine.

She has additional training and certification in plant-based nutrition and cooking. Most recently she co-authored the award-winning book, Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families. She lives in the Bay Area with her family. Most Sundays you can find her at local farmers market where she finds inspiration for weekly meals.