We know that well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets can be appropriate for all ages and stages of life. Plant-based living has gained mainstream popularity over recent years, especially among younger generations. In fact, one recent study found that 12% of millennials consider themselves “faithful vegetarians.” As such, many parents of young vegan families are seeking nutritional guidance from dietitians to make sure their kids are receiving adequate nutrition. Below are three common questions you may receive from parents of vegan children and how to address them.
1. How can I ensure that my child is getting all of the nutrients he/she needs on a plant-based diet?
A varied, whole foods, plant-based diet provides the nutrients children need for optimal growth and development. Some of these key nutrients, and where to find them, are outlined below.
• Protein is found abundantly in ancient grains, whole soyfoods (eg, tofu, tempeh, edamame), seitan, peas, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and some plant milks (eg, soy, pea). Diets adequate in calories also will be adequate in protein. That complementary proteins need to be consumed in the same sitting is a myth; as long as clients eat a variety of protein foods, they’ll easily obtain all of the essential amino acids on a plant-based diet.
• Healthful fats can be found in avocados, ground flaxseed, plant milks, nuts and seeds, whole soyfoods, and olives.
• Calcium sources include fortified plant milks and orange juice, calcium-set tofu, broccoli, and dark leafy greens low in oxalic acid such as kale and collard greens.
• Iron is found in beans, kale, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots, enriched grains, and blackstrap molasses. Eating vitamin C-rich foods at the same meal boosts iron absorption.Zinc can be found in soy products, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. Plant-based diets high in phytates (found in cereals, nuts, and legumes) can inhibit zinc absorption, making it important to eat zinc foods regularly.
• Iodine has two main food sources—iodized salt and sea vegetables—though these aren’t always reliable or consistent sources. Processed foods in the United States don’t generally contain iodized salt. Children older than 1 can take a multivitamin or prudent iodine supplement that provides one-half of the Dietary Reference Intake daily.
• Vitamin B12 sources include some fortified plant milks and nutritional yeast. However, the most reliable source of vitamin B12 for all ages is a supplement, which can be taken in small doses either daily or a few times per week. A helpful table outlining age appropriate supplementation recommendations for B12 can be found here.
• Vitamin D can be found in fortified plant milks, orange juice, and some fortified cereals, as well as ultraviolet light-treated mushrooms. It also is synthesized through the skin during sunlight exposure, but efficiency of this process is dependent on a variety of individual factors, and it’s recommended that children take a supplement instead. Infants should take a vitamin D supplement containing 400 IU daily, increasing to 600–1000 IU daily at age 1.
• Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
2. What dietary supplements should my child take?
Based on the child’s overall diet quality, parents may choose to use a multivitamin or single-nutrient supplements. General recommendations are for vegan kids to supplement vitamins B12 and D at minimum, though omega-3 fatty acids, iron, iodine, and zinc may be beneficial if dietary sources are inadequate, as outlined in the question above. Vegan-friendly options of vitamin D include ergocalciferol or lichen-derived cholecalciferol. Microalgae-derived EPA and DHA supplements also are available. Blood tests, such as the methylmalonic acid, or MMA, test for B12, can be used to help determine where additional supplementation or dietary adjustments may be needed.
3. How can I get my picky eater to eat a wider variety of plant foods?
It can be reassuring for parents to know that all kids go through a “picky eating” phase and that it can take many introductions of the same foods before a child tries it. Fruits and vegetables can be subtly hidden in other foods. Muffins, pancakes, pasta and pizza sauces, and smoothies make great vehicles for nutrition. Serving raw produce with dips like hummus and guacamole or shaping sandwiches with cookie cutters can be fun for kids and make them want to try new things. Serving family-style meals also can help, giving the child some independence and control over choosing which foods and portions they want to eat.
The plant-based movement is growing and many families are choosing to adopt vegan lifestyles together. By understanding how to address these key nutritional concerns from parents, dietitians can be a pivotal resource for vegan families.
— Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a plant-based lifestyle strategist for families and a health/nutrition freelance writer in Colorado. She works to normalize veganism for all ages and advocates for a more ethical, sustainable, and nutritious food system. She can be found at www.chronicplanet.net or on Instagram at @chronicplanet.