Should Your Family Try a Vegan Diet?
Vegans follow a plant-based diet that's a stricter form of vegetarianism. In addition to avoiding meat and poultry, vegans eliminate all animal by-products from their plates, including dairy milk, cheese, butter, fish, eggs, and honey.
The rising popularity of veganism makes it fairly easy for families to adapt to the lifestyle. You can find plenty of vegan recipes online, vegan-friendly items at restaurants, and vegan alternatives at the grocery store (think cashew-based cheese and soy meat substitutes).
But while veganism has plenty of health and environmental benefits, there's also several vegan diet cons for families—mainly that it's harder to get essential amounts of protein, calories, and certain nutrients. Here, we share important considerations for veganism in kids, and give suggestions for successfully incorporating the diet into your family's life.
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The Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Families choose to go vegan for a variety of reasons. Some tout the health benefits: Veganism has been shown to decrease the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and certain types of cancer. It may also help manage blood sugar levels and improve kidney function. As another health benefit, veganism focuses on natural ingredients that pack in more magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, and several important plant chemicals. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also says that vegan diets tend to be lower in nutrients we should limit in our diets, including saturated fat and cholesterol.
Other families opt to go vegan for ethical reasons. Maybe they dislike the unfair treatment of animals in farming practices, or they're morally opposed to the exploitation/consumption of creatures altogether. That's why some vegans also avoid leather, wool, fur, and cosmetics that have been tested on animals.
There are also environmentally-motivated vegans who try to minimize their ecological footprint. Animal agriculture uses lots of water, land, and labor. It also emits greenhouse gases that harm our planet.
Is a Vegan Diet Healthy for All Ages?
Based on the results of several studies and polls, anywhere from 2 to 6 percent of the American population is vegan today—and that includes many families with children. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that well-planned vegetarian diets (including vegan diets) are "healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." The organization also claims that veganism is appropriate for childhood and adolescence—but it's important to do it properly. After all, kids need nutrients to fuel their developing bodies, and veganism eliminates many sources of protein, calories, and vitamins.
Important Considerations for Veganism
Thinking about starting a plant-based lifestyle? Keep reading to learn more about important vegan considerations for kids and families.
One of the biggest vegan diet cons is that plant-based foods don't provide as much protein as animal products. Protein is essential for growing bodies, so you'll need to include plenty of natural sources like nuts, legumes, grains, and seeds into your family's diet. Soy protein is also a great alternative, says Dr. Keith Ayoob, EdD, a diet and lifestyle nutritionist and dietitian.
Kids need plenty of calories to fuel their bodies, and plant-based foods are naturally lower in calories than animal sources. What's more, plant foods tend to have high fiber contents, which can make kids feel full before getting enough to eat. It's essential to ensure that vegan kids get sufficient calories; having plenty of meals and snacks throughout the day can help.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Nutrients
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets may have lower intakes of vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, iron, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. That's no surprise since these must-eat nutrients are found abundantly in animal foods, which are excluded from vegan diets. Still, with proper meal planning, you can get these vitamins and minerals from plant-based options instead. Here are some suggestions:
Vitamin B-12: Fortified soy and rice beverages, ready-to-eat fortified cereals, and some meat substitutes
Calcium: Bok choy, broccoli, 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
Iron: Iron-fortified cereals, beans, chickpeas, leafy green veggies, tofu
Omega-3s: Chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds , walnuts, edamame, seaweed, pumpkin seeds
Your doctor can also screen for possible deficiencies and determine whether your child needs a supplement, according to Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition.
Social and Emotional Aspects
Besides the risk of not meeting nutrient needs, following a vegan diet can make mealtime challenging for kids when they're at school, with friends, or eating out. They won't be able to indulge in pizza parties, for example, or buy treats from the ice cream truck. Veganism can also be difficult for "picky" children who might not try or accept a wide variety of plant foods. It's important to consider these factors before starting your family on a vegan diet.
Consulting a Nutritionist
Because foods like dairy, lean meats, poultry, fish, and eggs are excluded from the vegan diet, parents will need to make sure their children get enough nutrients to meet their growth and development needs. Seeing a registered dietitian nutritionist well-versed in vegan diets is a great place to start; they can give you science-based and practical guidelines, as well as recommend supplements if necessary.