Healthy Plant Based Diet for Children and Adolescents
Tips for vegan adolescents and their parents
Leah Yaffe and Kerem Avital, clinical dietitians
Food is not only a health or ideological issue, but also a family matter. When one member of the household goes vegan, it is important to respect their choice. Avoid creating conflicts around food as much as possible, and ensure it does not play a prominent role in family dynamics and relationships at home. When teens go vegan, parental support is of great importance.
It is important to offer nutritious and healthy food during adolescence to ensure they receive all the components that their bodies need. The position of the American Nutrition Association (ADA) is that a balanced vegan diet meets all of our nutritional needs, at every stage of life, including childhood and adolescence. No supplements are needed except B12, which we will expand on later.
It’s also important to remember that conflicts should be avoided as much as possible around food and keep food out of the relationship at home: both from the concerned parents, and from the teens and the children.
What do vegans eat?
A balanced vegan diet is based on plant foods and contains grains (rice, oats, wheat, etc.), legumes (chickpeas, soy, lentils, etc.), vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and vegetable oils. It is advisable to base most of the nutrition on these raw materials, and prepare stews, spreads, patties and soups. You are welcome to use the recipe bank and the vegan meal booklet for children who have started vegan diets in collaboration with the Meatless Monday Organization).
Today you can also find a wide variety of processed vegan products – burgers, sausages and more. Not all are particularly nutritious, but some are nutritionally reasonable and they can be easier to prepare when time is short or on rushed school days. However, it is important to know which products are preferable. You can look at the ingredient list to learn what is the dominant ingredient (the ingredient that appears first on the list is the dominant one and so on). Check what flavor and other additives have been added to the food as well as how much sodium is in the finished product. Of course it would be wrong (and unhealthy) to base yours or your children’s entire diet solely on processed and canned foods.
Many cereals contain important vitamins and minerals and can be a healthy and nutritious breakfast alongside plant-based milks or yogurts. It is important to choose cereals that do not contain a large amount of sugar and food coloring. In general, the ones that do not look like sweets and does not aim its packaging at children should be chosen.
Develop healthy dietary habits
During childhood, most children’s nutrition should be controlled by the parents and certainly with their full knowledge. Developing and raising vegan children who eat a proper and balanced diet is perfectly normal. A measure of normal development can be a follow-up to the child’s growth curve.
Childhood vegan diets are a great option for exposure to a range of foods and palettes that are not usually on the standardized Western menu. Since the vegan menu is based on a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, a varied vegan menu guarantees a large amount of minerals and vitamins, as well as dietary fiber and healthy fats (unsaturated), creating a diet that can healthily accompany them into adulthood.
One of the benefits of a vegan diet is the abundance of dietary fibre, which is only found in plant foods and helps to prevent disease. For adults it is wonderful, but in childhood it is advisable to avoid too much dietary fiber. This is because teens and children have smaller stomachs, and because some of the dietary fiber prevents the absorption of fats, sugars and minerals that are important for normal development. Therefore, it is recommended to incorporate whole grains that contain less dietary fiber such as white rice, pasta, couscous, and potato (which is defined as starch).
Calcium is an essential mineral for proper skeletal development and is found in bones, teeth and nails. Calcium also has a role in nerve and muscle activity, as well as in blood clotting.
Sodium (found in salt, processed foods, canned sauces, ready-made salads, etc.) increases the loss of calcium in the urine, thus reducing the amount of calcium absorbed by the body. Sodium consumption should be reduced as much as possible.
Leafy green vegetables, tofu and soy milk (we recommend buying those fortified with calcium), almonds, whole tahini (containing 7-10 times more calcium and iron) and even oranges are good sources of calcium. It is important to diversify the calcium sources and consume them daily. For example, breakfast can be eaten with fortified soy milk, and in the evening tofu and broccoli pie. You can take a bag of nuts, almonds and dried fruit to school, or sandwiches with full tahini and/or legume spreads. You can read here more about calcium sources in a plant based diet.
Iron is a mineral that makes up the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecule. The ability to absorb hemoglobin from plant sources is less efficient than the ability to absorb them from animal sources. However, in a study, there was no difference found in iron levels between vegans and meat eaters. Vitamin C and other substances found in fruits and vegetables improve the body’s ability to absorb iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium.
Foods that contain high amounts of iron usually also contain high amounts of vitamin C. Good sources of iron are: broccoli, bok-choy, soybeans (including tofu), lentils and spinach.
Examples of iron-rich meals and vitamin C: a whole-wheat bread sandwich with lentil spread alongside tomato/carrot; Sautéed vegetables with tofu, peppers and broccoli; Tofu and broccoli patties.
Zinc is an essential mineral for growth, development, the immune system, vision and more. In a vegan diet,, a challenge arises because in many foods with zinc, there is also a phytate that interferes with the absorption of zinc. Fermentation processes (miso, tempeh) and sprouting (of legumes) can help improve zinc absorption.
Main sources for zinc in a plant based diet are: black eyed peas, lentils, lima beans, peas, red beans, oats, spinach, nuts, tofu and soy chips.
The only vitamin to be taken as a food supplement is B12. It originates from bacteria found in soil. Today you can find B12 fortified foods like some types of cereals and nutritional yeast. They should not be relied upon as a major source and it is important to regularly take supplements (cherry flavored sublingual tablets, taken under the tongue, at least twice a week). B12 deficiency is very dangerous and can cause irreversible nerve damage. Click here for more info about B12 in a vegan diet.
Protein is needed for many functions in our bodies: cell regeneration, hormone and enzyme production, immune system antibodies, and carriers in various processes in the body’s cells. In childhood and adolescence, protein is also essential for normal growth and development. In general, the Western diet is very rich in protein, far more than the nutritional recommendations. In a vegan diet, you can easily get enough protein from a combination of legumes (beans, lentils, etc., soy and its products), grains, nuts and seeds. Even in fruits and vegetables there is protein, but in very small quantities (some websites claim that fruits and vegetables contain a lot of protein when comparing the amount of protein to the amount of calories in different foods, but the amount of protein should be calculated and carefully considered).
A daily menu for 10 year old girl
Bowl of cereal with soy milk + chia seeds
White bread sandwich with tahini (whole grain sesame spread) and date syrup
A fruit plate (half a cup of strawberry/apple/banana/pear)
Rice and Lentils (You should also add lots of vegetables and green herbs – parsley, dill, basil, mint, etc.) or fried rice with crispy tofu
A cup of orange juice
2 chocolate balls with some almonds
Broccoli and tofu pie
Vegetable salad (tomato, carrot, cucumber) – or a quinoa and tofu salad
A daily menu for a 14-year-old child
Muesli: Soy yogurt + apple/banana or other fruit + granola
A whole-wheat bread sandwich with legume and nut spread (like black lentils and nuts spread, or pea pesto spread) + tomato or some other fresh vegetables
A whole-wheat bread sandwich with peanut butter and jam
Whole wheat couscous
Vegetable soup with lots of chickpeas (at least half a cup of chickpeas) – Or an Indian lentil soup
Assorted nuts + orange/clementine/peach or other fruit
Tofu Scramble or Tofu Shakshuka
Whole wheat bread
Salad with sunflower seeds + chia seeds
You are also welcome to browse the weekly plant based meal plan for adults (which can easily be adapted for children and adolescents as well).
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