Plant-Based by Design
8 Feb 2018
Note from @vikasgarg: The idea for our latest piece on plant-based nutrition for children comes from @chefheatheratx, who lives in Austin, TX and is raising her beautiful 7-month old boy vegan. Heather’s gotten some criticism for following her principles. While we share her intuition, we thought it might be best to ask an unbiased professional. So we consulted our network and found a wonderful naturopathic doctor in Singapore @shirleymirpuri who agreed to write on the topic of plant-based nutrition for children. Thank you Dr. Mirpuri!
We’d love to hear your thoughts so please post your comments at the end of the article!
The onset and prevalence of allergies, asthma, autoimmune conditions, skin concerns and digestive disturbances are on the rise amongst children. Children are now suffering from chronic disorders that were once considered to occur in adults. Most of these health concerns are primarily due to poor dietary choices. Children with diets high in processed and refined foods are often not receiving all the nutrients that their bodies need. Now more than ever, we are learning more about the importance of our gut and how much of an impact a poor diet and poor gut has on our overall health. This should make us wonder, what are the best nutrition options for our children?
Over the past decade there has been a significant rise in people choosing vegan lifestyles. Despite obvious benefits, there has been some criticism for people raising children on exclusively plant-based nutrition. Several studies, however, have shown that children who are on a well-planned nutritious vegan diet grow strong and healthy! In addition, the risks of developing lifestyle disorders such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are lowered. Therefore, the key to raising a child vegan, or a child on any type of diet preference, is to have a well-planned diet with a wholesome variety of foods that provides the right nutrients.
As a growing child, the demand for nutrients is much higher than as an adult. Growth can be delayed or slowed depending on nutritional availability. Certain nutrients are commonly deficient in children and need to be addressed via diet and/or supplementation. These include iron, vitamins B12 and D, zinc, calcium and proteins. For example, vitamin B12 is found mostly in animal sources of food; as a result this is a common vitamin deficiency we see in children who are on vegetarian or vegan diets. While iron is found in many plant foods, the type of iron found in animal sources is slightly better absorbed by our body. On the downside however, animal sources of iron may increase the risk of cancer, stroke and metabolic syndrome. Several foods such as grains and non-dairy milks are now fortified with vitamin B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients to help prevent these deficiencies from developing. In addition to supplementing certain nutrients if needed, a well-balanced vegan diet should include nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, soy, whole grains, nutritional yeast, fruits and vegetables. Having variety and ensuring every meal contains some proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats will provide the right foundation of nutrients for a healthy growing child.
The most common question I get from parents is how they identify if their child has any nutritional deficiencies. As a naturopath, in addition to regular blood tests, we do certain hair and urine tests that help to identify a range of possible vitamin and mineral deficiencies in children and adults. Physically, however, some of the most common symptoms of nutrient deficiencies that you will see in children include fatigue, lack of growth in terms of height and weight, poor muscle tone, decreased concentration, poor gut health, frequent occurrence of illnesses, dark circles under eyes, and body aches. Looking out for these symptoms will therefore help identify if certain nutritional demands are not being met.
It’s important to emphasize that toddlers require special care. If they’re still breastfed it’s important that the mother is on her prenatal multivitamins with a good dose of B12. And for those that are ready for food introduction, look for non-dairy nut milks, soy milks and nutritional yeast that have sources of B12. If you notice any of the symptoms of nutrition deficiency that I’ve listed, there are liquid B12 vitamins for toddlers that are available. And it’s just important to look at the height and weight of your toddler and check that they’re growing in the average to healthy growth percentiles. If that’s not happening then we consider nutritional interventions via supplementation. Further, plant-based nutrition tends to be more filling and curb off hunger longer, so it’s important to check that your child’s getting enough food and that their daily calorie intake is appropriate.
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No matter what type of dietary preferences you choose for your children and family, the key is to keep it well-balanced and to supplement the nutrients that are not readily available in your diet. I always encourage my patients to educate themselves on the variety of foods available and how to achieve an appropriate balance. We’re lucky that today most products are fortified with essential vitamins so its possible to have varied dietary preferences.
There are also online communities and resources available to help you make smart choices, learn lots of new recipes, find restaurants that suit your needs, and meet people who are making the same dietary choices.
Additional Resources: First Steps Nutrition Trust, a UK based non-profit that counts celebrity chef Jamie Oliver as one of its patrons, has put together a comprehensive 140 page report on plant-based nutrition for every stage of childhood, from newborns to children under 5.
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Please consult independent professionals prior to following any medical or nutritional advice found online. abillionVeg, Inc., its subsidiaries and affiliates are not liable for the accuracy of any of the opinions or claims presented.
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