Plant-based eating without missing key nutrients

Going vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian? Get all the nutrition you need

plant-based diet: Modern dad washing carrots in the sink. His 6-year-old daughter hugs him.

If you’re planning a plant-based diet or meat-free days this year, you’ve got plenty of company.

Nearly one-fourth of Americans eat plant-based meat, poultry or seafood alternatives, reports Packaged Facts. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers spent $7 billion on plant-based food in 2021, up 27% from the previous year, according to the Good Food Institute.

There are many reasons to choose a plant-based diet: health, environmental concerns, even cost savings. But whether you’re thinking about transitioning your family to plant-based cuisine exclusively or just a few days a week, you might be wondering if there’s anything special you need to consider for your youngest eaters.

Learn more: Nutrition specialists at Sanford Health

Reaping the rewards

First of all, why would someone consider plant-based eating? For many, the documented health effects are promising. Studies have found the following benefits:

  • Lowered risk for heart disease
  • Easier weight management

Avoiding meat can make sense. By doing so, you’ll eliminate your exposure to the chemical compounds that result from cooking animal meat at high temperatures (which, among other things, can cause inflammation and contribute to chronic disease). You’ll also reduce the amount of dietary cholesterol you consume, which is associated with cardiovascular disease.

What about kids?

It’s perfectly healthy for infants, toddlers and older children to eat a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet.

Milk-based drinks: When it comes to milk-based drinks, babies should only drink breast milk or formula in their first year. There are vegan, soy formulas fortified with calcium and vitamins D and B12 available — consult with your pediatrician about what is best for your baby. Cow’s milk and other milk substitutes (such as hemp, almond or rice milk) don’t have the nutrients little ones need early in their development like breast milk and formula do. If you’re interested in adding a vegan option to your child’s diet after the first year, ask your pediatrician what age they recommend introducing soy milk, rice milk or another plant-based milk.

Solid foods: After six months, parents can begin adding supplementary foods, such as ground grains that are cooked very soft, mashed fruits and pureed vegetables. When introducing solid foods, consider things like tofu and mashed cooked beans.

Play nice with nutrients

There are a handful of nutrients that you’ll want to pay special attention to when feeding kids primarily with plants.

B12: This is the only nutrient that you can’t get from plants. Not getting enough can lead to gastrointestinal issues and neurological disorders, so it’s important to make sure your kids have a source of B12. Eggs and dairy work for some vegetarians; vegans should look for B12 vitamins or fortified foods like cereals and soy drinks.

Iron: Nuts, beans, fortified grain products and vegetables all contain iron. Iron is an important nutrient for all ages: infants, children and adolescents. Make sure your selection is age appropriate though — nuts and chunky nut butters are a choking hazard for young children.

Zinc: Needed for growth and sexual maturation, zinc is another nutrient that’s important for adolescents. It also supports the immune system and wound healing. Zinc is found in legumes, soy foods and oats. For older children, nuts and seeds are also good sources of zinc.

As with any style of eating, you’ll need to put some thought into creating a well-balanced diet. That should include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and a small amount of nuts and seeds.

If you’re interested in adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet for your children, talk with a dietitian, nutritionist, or pediatrician to plan a balanced diet. Keep these tips in mind, and you can keep your family running on plant power.

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Posted In Digestive Health, Healthy Living