In recent years, more and more Americans have begun to swap out animal proteins for those that are plant-based. Although this is generally seen as a good idea for adults, some may wonder if it’s appropriate for children. The big question: Can plant-based proteins give children all the nutrition they need?
Protein is an essential macronutrient in a person’s diet at any age. Across the globe, people—especially children—don’t get enough protein in their diets because of food availability or cost. Plant-based proteins are much leaner than animal proteins overall, making them more appealing as a protein “package.”
A protein package refers to all the things included in the protein source. So not only grams of protein, but also fat, sodium, and other substances. Animal protein packages typically include more fat and sodium along with the protein, whereas plant proteins have very little fat or sodium, and more benefits like fiber, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Generally, getting proteins from plants is a healthier choice than getting this nutrient from meats, according to Harvard, but does this rule also apply to children?
Plant-based diets are suitable for children, according to guidance published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Lisa Patel, MD, FAAP; and Amanda Millstein, MD, FAAP, both pediatricians serving on the AAP Council on Environmental Health, say parents are increasingly coming to their clinicians to ask about plant-based options. Patel and Millstein, who co-authored the guidance for the AAP, say there is less information on these diets for children than there are for adults, and it’s concerning because children have such unique nutrition needs.
“Parents worry whether a plant-based diet would, for example, provide enough protein for their child’s growth and development,” Patel says.
Patel and another colleague, Rebecca Philipsborn, MD, outlined guidance to help pediatricians discuss plant-based diets with parents.
“First, it’s important to realize that parents often don’t know how much protein their child needs and often aren’t aware that there are other foods that can meet protein needs beyond meat,” Philipsborn says. “To give a rough sense of how much protein a child needs, children between ages 1 and 3 years need about 13 grams of protein per day, from 4 to 8 years old they need 19 grams per day, and greater than 9 years old between 46 to 52 grams per day.”
Smaller amounts of protein may appear in other foods in a child’s diet such as oatmeal, wheat pasta, peas, broccoli, and potatoes.
“If you are following a plant-based diet where you continue to consume small amounts of eggs, meat, and dairy, your child will get all the necessary nutrients for growth,” Patel says, adding that there may be some supplementation needed if the plan is to cut out all animal products. “If switching to a vegan diet, where all animal products are eliminated, it is important to maximize sources of B12, calcium, zinc, vitamin D, and iron.”
Parents may want to feed their child more plant protein than animal for a number of reasons. Perhaps it’s already the way the parents eat, and they want the family to all eat the same foods. It can also be an environmental matter or a health decision.
“We know that the process of atherosclerosis likely starts in childhood, and parents want to know how vegetarian or vegan diets can improve health,” Patel says.
Outside of nutritional value, Patel and Philipsborn note that there are other safety concerns with meats. The World Health Organization has classified red meats as possible carcinogens, and processed meats as carcinogenic to humans.
“Parents are also beginning to understand that unless we as individuals make changes in our lives to protect our planet and mitigate climate change, the world they are leaving their children and grandchildren will pose many health threats and may be uninhabitable,” Patel says. “Reducing or eliminating our consumption of meat and dairy products is one way to decrease greenhouse gas emissions that are rapidly warming the planet.”
Finding information about plant-based diets for children is still a challenge, but Philipsborn and Patel say more guidance will be coming soon.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics is considering putting out formal guidance for pediatricians and parents given the importance both to the health of our children and the health of our planet to make the switch to a plant-based diet. Stay tuned for this,” Phillipsborn says.
Until then, they offer another resource from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that provides information for parents who are interested in offering their child more plant-based proteins.