Let me cut to the chase here. The answer is YES. Plant-based diets are not only the best diet option for grown adults, but for children, teens, and aging adults as well. Let's get into why this is so, and what concerns we might have over certain age groups.
Plant-based diets have been shown to have protective effects for children and teens. Starting life off with ample amounts of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals which are found primarily in plant foods sets children up for healthy brain and physical development. Reducing the amounts of processed foods, high-fat snacks, and sugar-sweetened beverages can enable children to maintain a healthy weight and learn a healthy relationship with food.
Of course, with a plant-based diet comes concerns for many parents. Where will my child get their protein, calcium, and energy?
The answer is that while plant-based diets take a little extra planning, once you get used to incorporating fortified plant milk, using beans and tofu regularly as a healthy protein source, and incorporating a wide variety of calcium-rich vegetables, your concern will be a thing of the past and you and your child will start to flourish in their new diet.
I've compiled a list of things we should keep in mind when planning diets for each age group. For more information on planning a healthy diet for your child, I recommend meeting with me one-on-one or referring to the list of helpful books and websites I've compiled at the end.
From Pregnancy to Breastfeeding Moms and Babies
From day 1, your baby can be fueled by a plant-based diet (meaning that YOU are fueled by a plant-based diet). It is the official position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that well-planned plant-exclusive or plant-predominant diets are considered appropriate for pregnant and lactating women. New research even suggests that the current dietary pattern of overconsumption (which does not ensure adequate nutrition) in North America may set your baby up for health risks such as obesity and type 2 diabetes and that this risk can be minimized or avoided by following a plant-forward diet.
What does well-planned entail? Making sure you are getting adequate calories from a wide variety of plant foods, not excluding macronutrient categories, ensuring adequate folate, iron, B12, choline, calcium, and DHA/EPA intake/supplementation, and ensuring that you are maintaining appropriate weight gain in pregnancy. This may seem like an intimidating list of nutrients, but taking a prenatal with iron, and possibly adding in a B12 supplement (recommended for all vegans), half of a choline supplement, and a plant-based DHA/EPA supplement should cover all your bases, along with eating a wide variety of plant-based foods.
In terms of babies breastfed from exclusively plant-based mamas, we should ensure they are supplemented with 400 IU of vitamin D (recommended for all new babies) from birth.
Toddler and Early Childhood
Many people are rightly concerned that plant-exclusive diets may be harmful to children. Where will they get their calcium for strong bones or fat for healthy brain development? This concern is valid in diets that are not appropriately planned and therefore do not meet childhood development requirements. However, eating an omnivorous diet does not necessarily protect children from deficiencies, and may lead to concerns on the opposite spectrum (children who develop overweight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and start the process of heart disease). Teaching children to love a wide variety of plant foods from a young age will set them up for a successful health journey for the rest of their lives.
Parents of plant-based children of any age should ensure adequate sources of iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D. This is possible by using a wide variety of plant foods, using fortified plant milk, and possibly some supplements.
Babies can start eating solid foods around 6 months of age. Their first foods should be from iron-fortified infant cereal.
As you transition to incorporating more plant foods, ensure to include full-fat soy foods, include fatty plant foods like avocados, nut/seed butter, bean/bean spreads, starchy vegetables, and grains to ensure adequate caloric intake.
Include plant-based sources of iron such as beans, tofu, hummus, peas, greens, nuts, and seeds.
Including some processed grains and cooking, vegetables will ensure there is not too much fiber, which can lead babies to become full before adequate caloric intake is met.
In this stage, more calories come from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans as opposed to high-fat plant sources.
Babies will eat more or less depending on their growth patterns. It is important to provide structure, but not force more or less food on a child who is growing.
Using soy or pea milk is recommended for protein and fat content. Ensure they are fortified with calcium and vitamin D/B12.
Feed toddlers every 2-3 hours and keep healthy nutritious snacks on hand when leaving the house.
Feed kids with 3 meals a day and 1-2 snacks using a wide variety of plant foods.
Involve kids in the process of picking out and preparing plant foods to improve acceptability.
Rely on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes as opposed to ultra-processed children's snack foods.
Do you remember a period in your life where you were constantly hungry and growing a centimeter a day? Adolescence is the time in our lives where we gain height, weight, skeletal and muscle mass more than any other time.
It's also the time in our lives when many teens adopt less healthful habits like eating at fast-food restaurants and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. Be it from stubbornness, a desire for independence, laziness, or peer pressure, teenagers often resort to the least healthy ultra-processed foods and see a drop in the number of fruits and vegetables they eat. However, vegetarian teens often have much higher rates of nutritious fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fewer processed foods than the average US teenager.
In order to get enough protein, there should be a hearty amount of tofu, tempeh, veggie meat replacements, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds to meet requirements.
Fortified dairy, but also tofu, greens, chia seeds, beans, hummus, nuts, oranges, and figs should also be included to provide adequate calcium for growing bones. Vitamin D should also come from sun exposure or a supplement if living in northern climates or spending a majority of time indoors.
Teen girls should include lots of tofu, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, and other iron-fortified foods, along with a source of vitamin C after menstruation begins.
Possibly take a multivitamin (B12 is a must even if no other is taken) to cover some bases.
If you've been following my blog for a while, you probably already know that a plant-based diet isn't just healthy for adults, but actually the preferred diet due to its wide range of nutrients and its protective effect against common adult-onset diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and more.
Since it is not a period of growth (unless you are a vegan athlete), we can often focus less on protein and fat and focus our attention on including a wide variety of healthy carbohydrates from whole grains, fruit, and vegetables.
If you are a woman who is still menstruating, you will need to continue to include sources of iron (tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables) along with a source of vitamin C which improves absorption.
To protect yourself from breast and prostate cancer, you should eliminate or greatly reduce dairy/cheese in your diet. To protect yourself from colon cancer, I recommend getting at least 40 grams of fiber a day and eliminating meat, dairy, and eggs.
Most people associate aging with more chronic diseases, more pain, less mobility, and an overall decrease in your quality of life as the years go by. But, what if this didn't have to be the case?
Have you ever heard of the Blue Zones? These are 5 locations around the globe where people are 10 times more likely to reach the age of 100 than Americans. Why do these people thrive and live so long? There are 9 principles listed out by Dan Buettner as the Power-9 which include moving naturally, living with purpose, and having what he calls a plant-slant. These communities, although spread far and wide all share in common a plant-predominant diet.
Incorporating lots of plants can be protective against chronic inflammation which is linked to a wide variety of diseases, especially those of aging. Having healthy doses of fiber can prevent the slowing of the bowels that often comes with aging. Plant-based diets can also provide protective benefits for the brain, eyes, teeth, bones, breasts, prostates, and so much more.
If you are a post-menopausal woman, including healthy calcium sources should be a priority. Eating a lower-fat plant-based diet can improve hot flash symptoms and including soy may also be beneficial!
As with all plant-based diets, it's important to keep highly bioavailable sources of protein in your diet (for example tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds). You should also supplement with B12, recommended for all plant-based eaters.
There are so many benefits to choosing a plant-exclusive or plant-predominant diet. Although there are some considerations to make when planning the diet for each age range, overall eating a wide variety of plants, including B12 and possibly vitamin D, and eating good sources of protein and iron will lead to a flourishing plant-fueled body.
For more resources on raising a plant-based family, I recommend these books and websites:
Nourish, The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families by Reshma Shad, MD, MPH and Brenda Davis, RD.
Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right by Joel Furhman, MD.
The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler: Your Complete Feeding Guide for 6 Months to 3 Years by Alexandra Caspero, MA, RDN, and Whitney English, MS, RDN.
Plant-Powered Families: Over 100 Kid-Tested Whole-Foods Vegan Recipes by Dreena Burton.
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