By Elisa Zied
December 14, 2013

By now, you've likely heard that Beyonce is on a well-publicized diet ride with her husband, Jay Z. On December 3rd, the power couple embarked on a 22-day vegan diet. They're not alone. Other celebrities who have been reported to follow a purely plant-based diet include Natalie Portman, Ellen Degeneres and Alicia Silverstone. But just because the stars seem to be aligning to ban meat, fish, dairy and eggs from their diets, does that mean you and your family should as well?

Although a healthy, well-balanced diet can certainly include both plant and animal foods, there's burgeoning evidence that following a vegetarian diet—even a vegan diet that is rich in plant foods and excludes eggs, dairy and other animal products—has some appealing perks. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), vegetarian diets are associated with lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. And just this week, a new (albeit small) study published in Nature suggests that switching from vegetarianism to meat-eating, or meat-eating to vegetarianism changed the number and kinds of gut bacteria and how it behaved within one day of making the switch. Researchers aren't sure what these changes mean for human health. But, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), gut bacteria are thought to play a role in digestion, immunity and possibly even body weight.

According to AND, vegetarian diets tend to be lower in nutrients we should limit in the diet—these include saturated fat and cholesterol. They also tend to pack in more fiber (many fall short on this) and vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate and several important plant chemicals.

But along with the perks of eating only plant foods come a few possible perils. According to AND, those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets may also have lower intakes vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. That's no surprise since these nutrients are found abundantly in animal foods—the foods excluded from vegan diets. Here are some plant foods that are good sources of vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D and zinc:

Vitamin B-12: fortified soy and rice beverages, ready-to-eat fortified cereals and meat analogs

Calcium: bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium-set tofu, fortified soy milk, fortified rice milk, fortified ready-to-eat cereal, soybeans, cowpeas, white beans, navy beans, instant oatmeal, English muffins and white rice

Vitamin D: fortified soy milk, fortified rice milk and fortified ready-to-eat cereal

Zinc: fortified ready-to-eat cereals, oats, soybeans, white beans, tomato products, lentils, spinach, kidney beans, barley, chickpeas, lima beans, navy beans, potatoes, peas, mushrooms, sweet potato and collards

According to Sharon Palmer, MS, RD, author of The Plant-Powered Diet, vegans and vegetarians (unless they eat eggs) get essentially no long-chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA). She says, "We do know that you can convert omega-3 fatty acids from plants (ALA) to the more potent kinds found in fish (EPA and DHA) at modest levels, so it's good for kids to consume ALA-rich plant foods such as walnuts, flax, soy, chia and hemp. But that might not be enough to support all of the important functions that the long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, have in the body." Although Palmer says there's not enough research to give us really firm guidelines on intake of EPA and DHA during childhood, she feels it's prudent, based on current evidence, for children to take small amounts of vegetarian EPA/DHA supplements, about 200 mg of DHA/EPA every 2 - 3 days.

In her article, Feeding Vegetarian and Vegan Infants and Toddlers, Dayle Hayes, MS, RD points out that iron, protein and fiber are a few other nutrients to pay attention in infants who follow vegan diets. She says although infants are born with enough iron stores to last 4 to 6 months, after that they need iron from iron-fortified cereals or supplements. According to Hayes, because infants can only meet their protein needs with breast milk or formula for about 8 months, after that time they need to derive additional protein from beans, cereals and fortified soy milks. To meet fiber needs, Hayes suggests frequent meals and snacks that include some refined grains like fortified cereals, breads and pasta, and higher-fat plant foods like avocado and sunflower butter.

Besides the risk of not meeting nutrient needs, following a vegan diet can make eating a bit of a challenge for kids when they're at school, at friends' homes, at camp or when eating out. It can also be a challenge for children who are more "picky" with food choices and don't try, accept or enjoy a wide variety of plant foods.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and AND concur that a well-planned vegan diet can be a healthy diet that provides all the nutrients kids need to meet their needs to grow and develop. But because foods and food groups like dairy foods, lean meats and poultry, fish and eggs are excluded from the diet, parents who want to fed their kids a vegan diet will need to make sure it provides enough calories and nutrients to meet their needs for growth and development. Seeing a registered dietitian nutritionist well versed in vegan diets is a great place to start to get science-based and practical guidelines.

Whether or not you think a vegan diet is too restrictive or you simply have no interest in eliminating animal foods from your family's diet, including more plant foods in the daily diet is likely a wise dietary strategy for parents and children alike. It's a good idea especially for those children (and parents) who fall short of current recommended intakes for nutrient-packed foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans and peas). To help you work more plant foods into your diet, check out How to Help Vegetarian (and All) Children Eat Their Vegetables. You can also visit Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group and Tips for Vegetarians.

Would you ever try a vegan or vegetarian diet?

Download our guide for Baby's first solid foods and finger food recipes. Then check out these no-fail snack foods for kids (and parents).


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