Obesity rates in children have almost tripled in the last 25 years. Among children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 in the United States, 31.7% are overweight. One in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life.
Those are just a few statistics facing our nation of overfed and undernourished children. But, we are not powerless. As parents, we can change the course towards better health for our children.
I am a vegan mom, and our family of five eats a whole-foods, plant-powered diet. It wasn’t always that way for me, though. I grew up eating meat, processed meats, cheese, dairy, and junk food. It took years to retrain my palate. I transitioned to eating vegan over 15 years ago, and did so to be a healthier me. So, when we began having children, I surely wanted that same good health for our children.
I wanted to give our children the early introduction to healthy plant-based foods that I did not have. Food habits and preferences begin early. And, as Julieanna Hever, R.D. points out in her book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition: “Diet in the first decade of a child’s life is more significant than all the remaining years of his or her life. Massive growth occurs during these years, and cells divide at a rapid pace. This is a period of great opporutnity to provide your child’s cells with optimal nourishment.”
So, if at all possible, start from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make healthful, lasting dietary changes for your child at 3, 8, or any other age. Consistency and repetition is key. Keep offering a range of healthy choices, and they will begin to stick. It won’t happen overnight. But it won’t happen at all if you give in to the old ways.
You are the parent. You are responsible for the well-being of your child. You make dozens of decisions daily on their behalf. You don’t let them drive in a car without a seat belt, or sit out in the blazing sun without a hat, or ride their bike without a helmet. Why is food any different?
Vegan parents are sometimes questioned about the nutritional adequacy of a vegan diet. Ironically, parents with children eating a meat and dairy-based diets are rarely questioned about: the amount of cholesterol and saturated fats they are consuming; the lack of fibre; hormones and chemicals associated with meat and dairy production; and the colors, refined sugars, and trans fats that are common in the standard diet. These dietary concerns should be questioned by parents, and taken seriously, as other health and safety matters are.
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that “appropriately planned vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”. We can set our children on a course of healthy eating habits that will last through their years.
And, The Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine states here that “Children raised on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes grow up to be slimmer and healthier and even live longer than their meat-eating friends. It is much easier to build a nutritious diet from plant foods than from animal products, which contain saturated fat, cholesterol, and other substances that growing children can do without. As for essential nutrients, plant foods are the preferred source because they provide sufficient energy and protein packaged with other health-promoting nutrients such as fiber, antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.”
And, contrary to what many people think about vegan diets, it is not impossible or even difficult to get the protein, calcium, and other essential nutrients you and your children need. Yes, you should supplement with vitamin B12. And, you may want to supplement with vitamin D, since as Ginny Messina, R.D. notes: “Vitamin D is an issue for everyone, not just vegans.” And, while you can munch your way to essential omega-3 fatty acid intake with chia seeds, ground flax seed, hempseeds, walnuts, and whole soy foods, you can also add vegan DHA oils and DHA/EPA supplements to your child’s diet if you’d like that extra asssurance. (*See resources at end of article)
Our girls are now 11, 7, and 3. They love their meals (of course, some are more loved than others!), and they often thank me for our “delicious and healthy meals”. They value eating real, wholesome food, and understand where it comes from. This is the kind of food knowledge and eating habits that will grow with them and nourish them for life.
So, set a course for good health for your children. Build them on a foundation of plant-powered foods. For recipes and tips, please visit my site at http://www.plantpoweredkitchen.com/.
**Dreena Burton is a stay-at-home mama of three. Vegan since 1995, Burton is the author of The Everyday Vegan, Vive le Vegan!, and Eat, Drink & Be Vegan. Her fourth title, “Let Them Eat Vegan” is now available! You can also join Dreena’s facebook community and follow her on twitter.
*For more specifics on nutritional specifics relevant to children on a plant-based diet, check out these resources:
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition, Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D., C.P.T.
- Becoming Vegan, Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis