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What to Know About Plant-Based Diets for Children

March is National Nutrition Month and it's always important to note that a well-balanced and nutritious diet is necessary for children’s health, development, and growth. A healthy diet for kids should provide an adequate amount of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. 

Plant-based diets, in particular, have become popular over the years. These include forms of vegetarianism where most, if not all, meat products are removed from the diet, as well as veganism where all animal products, including eggs and dairy, are excluded. While it's not usually necessary for children to follow a plant-based diet, doing so is considered safe and healthy during any life stage, if planned well. All children benefit from following a good dietary plan, but vegetarians and vegans will need to follow specific considerations. 

One of the best benefits of a plant-based diet is that there is easily more room for vegetables and fruits, both of which are important for obtaining vitamins, minerals, and fiber. However, not all plant-based foods are healthy like meatless products made from processed ingredients and which have become a common trend in the market. Occasionally consuming them is generally ok, but they should not be consumed on a regular basis. Instead, it's best to opt for whole foods that don't contain artificial ingredients. 

Plant-based options for whole foods include legumes (i.e. beans, peas, and lentils), nuts, (i.e. peanuts, almonds, and walnuts), soy foods (i.e. tofu, edamame, and tempeh), and seeds (i.e. chia seeds and flaxseeds). All of these are good sources of protein and legumes are also excellent sources of complex carbohydrates and fiber. Other healthy carbs include grains like quinoa, brown rice, and multi-grain breads. These foods can be used as sources of protein too when combined with other foods. If your child is a vegetarian, they can also get protein and other nutrients like calcium and Vitamin D from dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. Calcium is also found in leafy greens like kale and spinach, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. 

For healthy fats, there are plant-based and whole food options such as nuts, seeds, hummus, and avocados. These foods are great to pair with vegetables including salads or celery sticks and carrots. When planning a plant-based diet, you'll also want to pay attention to iron. If this essential mineral is lacking in your child's diet, they will become at risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia. Iron is usually best absorbed in meat, but it is still possible for your child to obtain adequate iron from plant-based sources, including beans, leafy greens, tofu, dried fruits, and fortified cereals. Iron is better absorbed when combined with Vitamin C so it's recommended to pair iron-rich foods with ones rich in this vitamin. These include oranges, strawberries, kiwi, pineapple, papaya, lemon, broccoli, and sweet potatoes.

A vitamin like B12 is primarily found in animal products. Not getting enough of this vitamin can lead to neurological problems. Children who are vegan will need to take a Vitamin B12 supplement. Fortified nutritional yeast and fortified cereals are also potential sources. 

An important thing to keep in mind when planning a plant-based diet is that every child’s dietary needs can vary, especially if they have celiac disease, allergies, or conditions like diabetes or high blood sugar. Adjustments will need to be made accordingly. If you have any questions or concerns regarding your child’s nutrition, contact our office. Our providers can guide your family on creating a healthy meal plan, regardless of your child's dietary restrictions and health challenges. 

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