Essential Nutrients for Growing Plant-Based Kids: A Comprehensive Guide
As with any diet, it’s important to know what nutrients your child needs and ensure you include sufficient sources of each nutrient, whether it be from food or added supplements. While a primarily whole food, plant-based diet tends to be rich in many necessary vitamins and minerals, such as antioxidants, fiber, and complex carbohydrates, there are also some nutrients to be mindful of and take extra care to ensure your child is getting enough.
I know you’re probably tired of hearing about protein in the context of a plant-based diet, and by now we are all aware that all plant foods contain some amount of protein. It is generally accepted that eating a wide variety of plants provides plenty of protein for the average person. The reason it’s important to talk about protein in the context of children is that their active, growing bodies have higher protein requirements than the average adult.
While adults can get by on about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight depending on their activity level, kids need closer to 0.5 to 0.75 grams per pound. This means it’s important to make sure that a larger proportion of the foods fulling their relatively small bellies are high quality protein sources like soybeans (all forms including tofu, tempeh, and edamame), beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and protein rich whole grains like quinoa and brown rice.
Vitamin B12 is synthesized by certain bacteria that most commonly live in soil. Before our modern world became hyper clean and super sanitized, human beings could get all the B12 they needed by eating unwashed vegetables and drinking untreated water. However, these practices also came with problems of their own, so drinking water out of a stream is not a recommended way to obtain your B12! In the modern world, many people get their B12 by eating animals that ate some dirt along with their grass or were supplemented with B12 while being raised for food. In fact, 90% of B12 supplements produced by the world are being fed directly to livestock.
Since plant-based eaters are not consuming this supplemental B12 that has been added to animal products, they have a higher likelihood of B12 deficiency, with as high as 43% of vegans not getting enough B12. B12 is essential for many functions of the human body in children and adults alike including central nervous system function and red blood cell formation. Low B12 can be very detrimental to a child’s growth and development, so it is vital for plant-based parents to ensure they have a quality source. The best way to provide adequate plant-based intake of vitamin B12 is to cut out the middle-cow and take B12 supplements directly either in the form of a supplement or fortified foods.
Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential nutrients that children need for proper brain and retina development. Inadequate fatty acid intake in pregnancy and early-life has even been shown to affect cognitive performance later in childhood.
One of the three types of Omega-3 fatty acids (ALA), and all four forms of Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in plant foods such as nuts and seeds including walnuts, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and almonds. The other two Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), on the other hand, are found only in sea foods like algae, seaweed, kelp, and fish that eat the omega-3 rich algae. Since vegans do not eat fish and are missing one of the most prevalent dietary sources of EPA and DHA, they are at an increased risk of developing a deficiency.
DHA has been shown to have special significance when it comes to child brain development, so it is important to make sure your child has enough, either from including sea vegetables in their diet, or providing an algae oil-based EPA and DHA supplement.
The most important reason that children need vitamin D3 is that it helps to absorb the calcium in their diet and build strong bones. Without enough vitamin D3, the human body can only absorb 10% to 15% of its calcium intake at most. With enough vitamin D3, the absorption rate more than doubles to between 30% and 40%. If they are not getting enough vitamin D3, children can develop a condition called Rickets caused by a softening of the bones!
Vitamin D3 can be obtained through sunlight, but depending on where on the globe a family lives and what their lifestyle looks like, this is often not enough to cover the daily 600 IUs recommended by the FDA. Plant food sources of vitamin D are limited, and while some mushrooms grown under UV lights can provide some dietary intake, if your child is not getting enough vitamin D3 through sun exposure, supplements and fortified foods may be the best way to close the gap.
Iron deficiency is an all-too-common problem that can affect anyone, but it is especially prevalent in young children. According to the WHO, 40% of children from 6 months to 5 years of age are deficient in iron. This is even higher than the 37% of pregnant women and 30% of menstruating women (aged 15-49) who qualify as anemic due to iron deficiency!
Iron plays a key role in moving oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and allowing muscles to properly store and use it. It is vital to ensure your child is getting adequate iron to make sure their bodies are operating properly and give them the oxygen they need to move and play. While this nutrient is often synonymous with red meat, there is a long list of plant-based sources that can easily cover the 7-15 recommended daily mg kids need depending on their age. One cut of cooked spinach packs almost 6.5 mg, a cup of lentils provides even more at 6.6 mg, and a cup of chickpeas has a whopping 12.5 mg.
Regardless of our age, we all need zinc to support healthy immune function and heal wounds, but children also need it to grow and develop. Insufficient zinc in children can cause loss of appetite, lack of growth, and low immunity.
To shine a light on why it is important to think about zinc in the context of plant-based eating, consider that of the top 15 food sources of zinc, 8 of them are animal based. Luckily for those following a vegan diet, pumpkin seeds, lentils, cashews, almonds, oats, muesli, and chickpeas also make the cut.
Calcium is necessary for building strong bones and teeth, and when a person is still growing those bones and teeth it’s even more important to ensure adequate intake. Despite this, it’s estimated that as high as 60% of children from the ages of six to eleven in the US are not getting enough! Clearly, this is not a problem reserved for those on a plant-based diet, but an important mineral to be mindful of regardless of the type of diet you choose for your child.
High quality plant-based sources of calcium include kale, soybeans, bok choy, chia seeds and broccoli. An important consideration is that as a kid gets older, their rate of bone development increases and so does their need for calcium. When they are between 1 and 3, 700 mg a day will suffice, but the RDA gradually steps up to 1,300 mg a day by the time they reach 9 years old. The increased need stays in place until kids are completely done growing around age 18. Once they have reached adulthood, the need for calcium drops back down to 700 mg a day. 1,300 mg may sounds like a lot, but a meal consisting of just one cup of tofu and one cup of cooked kale packs almost 1,050 mg! Add in a side of chia pudding, and you’re all the way there.
Vitamin A plays a crucial role in immunity, supporting healthy vision, and skin and cell production. While vitamin A is essential for both children and adults, a deficiency of this vitamin in kids can lead to delayed growth and development and increased risk of respiratory diseases and infections. Since children tend to be more susceptible to these types of illnesses, insufficient vitamin A leads to higher mortality rates.
The good news is even older children between 14 and 18 years old only require about 900 mcg of vitamin A daily (up from 300 mcg for 1- to 3-year-olds, 400 mcg for 4- to 8-year-olds, and 600 mcg for 9- to 13-year-olds) and it is abundant in a variety of plant foods. The most common form of vitamin A is beta carotene, and the easiest way to find it and make sure your child is getting enough is to think about orange foods! Some of the best plant-based sources are carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, cantaloupe, butternut squash, and papaya.
With a single cup of raw carrots packing over the 900-mcg necessary for teenagers, vitamin A is unlikely to be an issue unless you are dealing with an especially picky eater, but due to the nasty issues that can arise from not consuming enough, it is still an important nutrient to be aware of.
Nurturing the health and growth of plant-based kids requires a thoughtful approach to nutrition. While plant-based diets offer a wealth of benefits, ensuring the adequate intake of essential nutrients is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. By focusing on a diverse array of protein sources, supplementing wisely to bridge nutritional gaps, and incorporating a variety of plant foods rich in iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamins, parents can empower their children to thrive on their plant-based journey. With proper attention to these nutritional considerations, we can raise a new generation of vibrant, healthy, and resilient plant-based kids who are well-equipped to flourish in all aspects of life.