700 Children's Blog

Are Plant-Based Diets Safe for Kids?

Jan 14, 2020
Son sitting on father's lap eating at a table

The reasons people move to a plant-based lifestyle range widely between concerns for health, environmental, ethical, philosophical, religious/spiritual concerns and esthetic reasons, which can include a distaste for meat. No matter the reason, hearing a child say “I want to go vegetarian!” strikes fear in the hearts of many parents.

There are many types of plant based diets referenced in the chart below.

Type of Plant Based Diet

Allows

Omits

Vegan (strict vegetarian)

Plant based proteins only

Meat, Fish, dairy, eggs, honey

Vegetarian

Sometimes dairy & eggs

Meat, fish

Lacto-vegetarian

Dairy

Meat, fish, eggs

Pescatarian

Fish, sometimes dairy & eggs

Meat

Ovo-vegetarian

Eggs

Dairy

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian

Eggs, dairy

Meat, fish

What I see most often as a registered dietitian is kids turning into “carbatarians”. Instead of substituting nourishing plant-based proteins into their diet, they turn to more carbohydrates to help keep them full. It can also be tricky if children or adolescent’s don’t enjoy fruits or vegetables and decide to give up animal products. Sorry, but veggie based protein pastas aren’t going to do the trick! Protein shakes and protein bars should also not be the first alternative.

The first step as a parent or caregiver is to consider the whole picture and ask your child what their motivation for change is and where they obtained their information. I make sure to maintain a curious mindset when interviewing patients in clinic with a mindful awareness that disordered eating might be lurking in the shadows. I’ve heard many parents say that a child who was trying to “eat healthier” took an accidental wrong turn along the way.

Adding plant-based proteins can certainly pose challenges with young, picky eaters. However, families should work together as a family to avoid isolation. If you’re considering a transition to more of a plant-based lifestyle, but aren’t quite ready to make the transition, here are some ideas to get you started:

Implement “Meatless Mondays”

As a family, look up and discuss recipes that are plant-based. Try swapping out chicken in a stir fry for pan-fried tofu with spices. You could also try a veggie-based soup and leave the meat out. Make a grocery list then start chopping veggies the night before.

Keep Meals Deconstructed

Parents should not become made-to-order chefs when one family member opts to go plant-based. Try to keep most items on the side (if possible) so family members can build their own complete meal, but the base meal remains the same.

Consider “Flexitarian”

Try as a family to eat less red meat and add more plant-based protein into your meal and snack routine. You are not completely eliminating meat, but rather substituting plant-based proteins most days of the week.

Reference the chart below when substituting or adding plant-based proteins for the ideas above!

Animal-based protein

Protein Per Serving (g)

Plant based protein

Protein Per Serving (g)

Chicken

3 oz = 25 grams

Edamame

½ cup = 8 grams

Beef, tenderloin, lean

3 oz = 29 grams

Veggie burger (varies)

1 patty = 8-20 grams

Pork

3 oz = 22 grams

Lentils (cooked)

½ cup = 9 grams

Salmon

4 oz = 29 grams

Tofu, firm

3 oz = 7 grams

Beef jerky

1 oz = 11 grams

Nut butter

2 T = 8 grams

Cottage cheese

½ cup = 14 grams

Nuts

1 oz = 6 grams

Greek yogurt

5 oz = 14 grams

Hemp seeds

1 oz = 9 grams

Milk

8 oz = 8 grams

Soy milk

1 cup = 8 grams

Cheese

1 slice = 7 grams

Artificial cheese

¼ cup = 1 gram

Egg

1 egg = 7 grams

Almond milk

1 cup = 2 grams

Overall, plant based diets are completely safe for all stages of the lifecycle including children and adolescents. A vegetarian diet requires finding nourishing alternate iron and protein sources. If your child or adolescent is considering veganism, vitamin B12 must also be supplemented. A multivitamin with iron might also be beneficial in most cases.

Before making a change or if you’re concerned about adopting a plant-based lifestyle, contact their pediatrician. Discuss your options including scheduling an appointment with a registered dietitian for more specific guidance.

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Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Jessica Buschmann, RD
Sports Medicine

Jessica Buschmann, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian with Nationwide Children’s Sports Medicine. As part of her role at Nationwide Children’s, she provides nutrition services to Ohio Dominican University’s athletic teams and the general student population.

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700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.