Plant powered children
As parents you have the power to optimize your children’s health and set the stage for healthy food habits for the rest of their life. Raising your children on a well balanced, whole food plant-based diet, is not only safe, it is beneficial and healthy for children for exact the same reasons it is for adults!
However, since childhood is a time of rapid growth and development, it is especially important for parents to ensure that whatever diet they are serving their children, it provides all the necessary energy and nutrients. With some basic knowledge about nutrition this can easily be achieved with a plant-based diet. Below is a summary of the nutrients to be mindful about when raising children on a plant-based diet.
Everyone who eats a plant-based diet is recommended to supplement with Vitamin B12, children as well as adults. No plant-foods naturally contain sufficient amounts of Vitamin B12. Some plant foods and baby foods are fortified with Vitamin B12 and although those products theoretically could provide enough Vitamin B12, it is much safer to rely on a supplement. Vitamin B12 is needed for DNA synthesis and for healthy blood, brain and nerve function and a deficiency would be especially critical for an infant or child. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that children supplement adequately. The same applies to pregnant and breastfeeding women. For breastfeed infants no supplement is needed, as long the baby is exclusively breastfed by a mother who supplements adequately. Exclusively formula fed babies don’t need to supplement either. Once the baby starts eating solids and the majority of the energy is coming from solid foods rather than breast milk or formula, it’s time to start supplementing.
Iron deficiency is the most common micro nutrient deficiency in children worldwide but it can easily be prevented by offering children iron rich foods daily, as well as being mindful about how to combine meals. There are plenty of fantastic iron sources in the plant kingdom and plant-based children have not shown to have more iron deficiency than other children. However, iron from plants is not as readily absorbed as iron from animal sources, hence it is recommended that children on plant-based diets consume slightly more iron than the recommended daily intake.
Example of great sources for plant-based iron are:
- legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, peas, tofu)
- whole-grains, quinoa, buckwheat, millet
- seeds (chia, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower)
- nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts)
- dried fruit (apricots, figs)
- dark green veggies (spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, broccoli)
To increase the iron absorption from plants it is good to always have a source of Vitamin C in the meal, e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, bell pepper, kiwi, mango, melon, berries or citrus fruits. This can increase the iron absorption up to 5 times! Most plant-based meals contain some sort of Vitamin C rich vegetables, otherwise a good tip is to serve a few berries or a little bit of fruit as a dessert.
The most critical period for children to meet their iron needs is between 6-12 months of age, since breast milk is no longer providing enough iron, and the amount of solids they are eating is usually still pretty small, yet their needs for iron is very high! Here iron fortified baby cereal comes in very handy. Just one portion provides around 50% of the recommended daily intake of iron, depending on brand, and can therefore be an important complement to iron rich foods. Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells and for transportation of oxygen in the body, and a deficiency in early childhood can result in development delays. Therefore it is important parents introduce iron rich plant foods early on.
Zinc is necessary for growth, immune function and sexual maturation. Zinc deficiency is rare among children but since zinc from plant sources is little harder to absorb than zinc from meat, it is good to be mindful about zinc and include zinc rich foods in your child’s diets regularly. Good sources for zinc in a plant-based diet are legumes and whole-grains, as well as nuts and seeds, wheat germ and fortified cereals. Child friendly foods that are rich in zinc include oatmeal, tofu, cashew and peanut butter. Most great sources for zinc are also great sources for iron and protein, so by including these foods in your child’s diet daily, you provide them with many important nutrients at the same time! Certain cooking and preparation methods can increase the bioavailability of zinc in plant-foods. For instance, by soaking beans and nuts, roasting nuts and seeds, as well as sprouting beans you can increase the chance of higher zinc absorption.
Vitamin D is just as important for bone growth as calcium, but it is also important for other functions in our body such as neuromuscular and immune function. Sunshine is the best source of Vitamin D, but many factors impact how much Vitamin D we can produce from the sun a given day, e.g. skin color, sunscreen, clothes, smog, time of day and location. Children under 1 year of age should not be exposed to any direct sunlight, and since breast milk is very low in Vitamin D, the American Pediatric Association recommends all infants who are exclusively or partially breastfed to receive Vitamin D drops daily the first year of life. Very few foods naturally contain Vitamin D. Oily fish and egg yolks are the main ones. For children on plant-based diets there are many Vitamin D fortified plant-milks on the market today that provide just as much Vitamin D as a fortified cows milk. Some ready-to-eat cereals are also fortified with Vitamin D. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children to have a Vitamin D intake of at least 400 IU a day, and regardless of what diet the child has this is quite hard to achieve with only food! Therefore they also recommend all children who have dark skin, have little or no sun exposure and/or little or no dietary source of Vitamin D to continue with Vitamin D supplementation beyond the age of 1.
Most parents think their children must consume cows milk to ensure they get enough calcium in their diet, but there are many other healthy and safe ways to ensure your child meet their calcium need. Cows are obtaining their calcium from grazing grass, and people can obtain calcium from similar sources – namely dark green vegetables such as kale, bok choi, collard greens, nettles, broccoli and brussels sprouts. Other great plant-based calcium sources are cabbage, almonds, oranges, figs, sesame seeds, tahini, and some legumes; in particular soybeans and calcium set tofu. Another very easy way to ensure your child’s calcium intake is to serve them calcium fortified plant-milks as replacement for cow’s milk. Calcium fortified soy milk, pea milk or oat milk are excellent sources and they provide just as much calcium per cup as cows milk.
Iodine is important for normal thyroid function and for physical growth and mental development in children. Land grown foods tend to be low in iodine but since our oceans naturally contain iodine, sea vegetables, fish and seafood are rich in iodine. For children growing up on a plant-based diet it is important to ensure a sufficient iodine intake. The amount of iodine can vary widely from seaweed to seaweed, so relying on seaweed for iodine intake is not the best idea as that can lead to over consumption of iodine. Some seaweed contains very high amounts of iodine! Consuming seaweeds such as nori sheets as part of a varied plant-based diet is thought to be safe, but to secure a sufficient iodine intake in children it is better to rely on a supplement. Iodine deficiency was relatively common in America and Europe until iodine was added to regular table salt. Iodized salt is an important source for iodine in plant-based adults and older children, but to use table salt daily to get iodine for the youngest children seems contra productive. We want to keep salt to a minimum for our youngest ones! A sensible approach can be to use low dose iodine supplement and cooking with iodized salt at home.
Breast milk is high in omega-3 and will provide plenty of omega-3 for the baby. When the child has weaned it is wise to give the baby a supplement with DHA and EPA, the longest omega-3 fatty acids which are very important during childhood. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain development and optimal neurological function. In a plant-based diet there are many excellent sources of the omega-3 fatty acid called ALA. For instance chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, leafy greens, soy foods, flax seed oil, hemp seed oil and canola oil are all rich in ALA, and those sources can used to convert into to the longest omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. However, the conversion rate is not that efficient, so therefore it’s beneficial for infants and toddlers up to two years old at least, to supplement with a direct source of DHA and EPA. The same applies to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, they should also supplement with a direct source of DHA and EPA. There are many algae based DHA and EPA drops on the market today.