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A Comprehensive Guide for Parents: Kid’s Nutrition on a Vegan Diet

There are several science-based health benefits of eliminating animal products from our diets, including weight loss, lower blood sugar levels, improved kidney function, a reduction in certain cancers, lower risk of heart disease, etc. While vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish, vegans choose to avoid all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. However, despite the proven benefits of transitioning to a vegan diet, there is still some worry that children who follow a vegan diet, lack the essential nutrients needed for healthy growth and vitality. This issue can be easily prevented by educating parents, teachers, and care givers on children’s dietary requirements, which will allow for careful planning of children’s meals to ensure proper nutrition. In fact, a child following a well-rounded vegan diet typically consumes more than sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals when consuming whole foods, due to the fact that they are ingesting more nutrients and fiber, and less saturated fat than children following the standard American diet.

Iron plays a significant role in producing red blood cells, which help to carry oxygen throughout the body, while zinc is needed for the body’s immune system to work properly. Individuals who eat animal products get their iron and zinc from red meat. Because these nutrients are especially important for children, those following a vegan diet must eat foods containing sufficient zinc- and iron-rich vegetable including legumes, spinach, asparagus, and grains, or zinc and iron supplements. To assist in the absorption of iron, foods rich in vitamin C should also be ingested.

B12 is a supplement that all vegans need to take, as plant-based foods are generally devoid of it. This is due to the fact that humans are the only members of the animal kingdom who clean, wash, and cook their foods. For meat eaters, vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is naturally found in their food because animals typically eat foods that are covered in bacteria, which also already line their own guts. Vitamin B12 deficiency is a serious issue which can lead to anemia, nerve damage, neurocognitive changes, and possibly paralysis.

Calcium is an essential mineral, which makes up approximately 2 percent of your total body weight and aids in several basic bodily functions, including supporting the skeletal structure, cell signaling, blood clotting, muscle contraction, and nerve function, as well as keeping teeth and bones strong and healthy.  Calcium rich vegan foods include pinto beans, collard greens, dried figs, almonds, tempeh, mustard greens, navy beans, tofu, broccoli, edamame, bok choy, fortified non-dairy milk, almond butter, tahini, and kale. Many in the United States choose to drink cow’s milk to get their daily intake of calcium, however there are also several reasons to avoid it.

The human body requires vitamin D to effectively absorb calcium, and it helps to regulate our immune system and neuromuscular system. In fact, this nutrient is so important that our body produces it on its own after proper skin exposure to sunlight. For this reason, kids should get about 15 to 20 minutes a day outside for adequate levels. However, if your children are in school most of the day, aren’t able to get sunlight during the winter, or are located in parts of the country which don’t receive a lot of sunlight, mushrooms, fortified soy and almond milk, tofu, fortified orange juice, and plant-derived oral sprays or capsules will help to meet your children’s vitamin D requirements.

Protein is responsible for keeping your skin, bones, muscles, and organs healthy. It’s also one of the nutrients that many are concerned about when switching to a vegan diet, however a plant-based diet can offer plenty of protein from nuts, peanut butter, seeds, grains, and legumes. Non-animal vegan products, such as tofu and soymilk, also provide protein. Keeping these sources in mind, it’s important that vegans get enough “complete protein” in a meal, which means it contains all of the amino acids your body requires for bodily functions, like healthy metabolism.

All children (and adults) following a vegan or plant-based diet should be tracking macro and micro nutrients, especially at the beginning of their health transition, until it becomes clear what foods should be eaten and in what quantities for optimal health. Keep in mind that children have different nutritional requirements than adults, so these should be carefully monitored and meals properly planned to ensure health and vitality for vegan children.

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