Growing gains, not pains! Nourish article on childhood nutrition

Setting kids and teens up with good nutrition is central to lifelong health. They’ll flourish when nourished with a plant-based diet. Article by DFN's Lead Dietitian for Victoria, Dr Peter Johnston APD, first published in Nourish Magazine.


If you’re a plant-based parent, it’s only natural to want your children to join you on your health-promoting journey. If this is a recent change for you, they may well protest at having to eat this way. On the other hand, perhaps you’re yet to explore the world of plant-based cuisine but your child decides they want to try a vegetarian or even vegan diet.


Whichever the case, the good news is you can be confident that a wholefood, plant-based diet is the most nutrient-dense way to eat and will give your child a fantastic foundation for good health. In fact, it can put them at a health advantage over their omnivore peers – as long as their diet is varied and is predominantly based on whole plant foods rather than vegan junk foods.


As a parent, you’ll want to ensure that you know how to best meet the needs of their growing bodies, which can be a little different to the needs of adults. Plus, it’s always good to be clued up in preparation for questions and occasional criticisms, usually from well-meaning people who are not nutritionally trained – friends and family, but possibly even your doctor or nurse.

A whole food plant-based diet is the most nutrient-dense way to eat and will give your child a fantastic foundation for good health

Plant-based diets are healthy for all life stages

The largest body of dietitians in the world, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has given well-planned vegan diets the tick of approval as suitable for all stages of life. Nutrition guidelines from around the world also give us similar reassurance.


Plant-based diets have many advantages, including being lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, while also delivering more fibre, antioxidants, folic acid, vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and a host of other beneficial phytochemicals. This may explain why people of all ages who eat plant-based diets have a lower incidence of obesity, heart disease and other vascular diseases, as well as lower rates of diabetes and cancers.

Plant-based diets are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, while also delivering more fibre, antioxidants, folic acid, vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and a host of other beneficial phytochemicals.

Conversely, we know from published research that atherosclerosis (a narrowing of the arteries that heightens the risk of heart disease and stroke) begins in childhood. It has been shown from autopsies of trauma victims that virtually all children raised on a standard Western diet have signs of heart disease – visible to the naked eye – by age 10! Evidence shows that this heart disease begins in utero, so it is never too early to start improving your own diet. And of course, ensuring your children have the best possible diet as they grow sets them up for better lifelong health.


Let’s dispel a few myths so you can make the right choices for your family.


Don't growing bones need dairy?

Dairy products are frequently cited as being ‘essential for bone strength’. Yet a recent review by leading Harvard researchers concluded that high consumption of milk may increase the risk of fractures later in life. Graphs of milk consumption versus the incidence of hip fractures (a key marker of bone strength) show that countries with the highest dairy consumption generally have the highest rate of hip fractures. We also know that osteoporosis was once very low in traditional Asian cultures where dairy consumption was rare, although sadly, such benefits have been lost as diets have become increasingly Westernised.


Dairy products are frequently cited as being ‘essential for bone strength’. Yet a recent review by leading Harvard researchers concluded that high consumption of milk may increase the risk of fractures later in life. Graphs of milk consumption versus the incidence of hip fractures (a key marker of bone strength) show that countries with the highest dairy consumption generally have the highest rate of hip fractures. We also know that osteoporosis was once very low in traditional Asian cultures where dairy consumption was rare, although sadly, such benefits have been lost as diets have become increasingly Westernised.


Interestingly, about 65 percent of all humans are actually lactose intolerant, including most people of Asian, African, and Latin American descent. Consuming milk from cows, sheep, and goats is a fairly recent development in terms of our human evolution and has only been practised for around 8,000–10,000 years. We could even consider it quite strange that we wean from our human mothers, then promptly start to breastfeed from another animal!


Acne and asthma are frequent problems for children and removing dairy products is known to reduce or eliminate these conditions. It’s also good to be aware that dairy cheeses contain mild opiates, called casomorphins, and so are mildly addictive. You can help children overcome any cravings with the many plant-based alternatives now available. Better still, there are plenty of easy-to-make, wholefood recipes for the healthiest cheesy fix.


Bone strength comes primarily from weight-bearing exercise, so when it comes to kids and teens, it’s best to keep screen time to a reasonable minimum. Instead, try to encourage sports and other physical activities that they enjoy. Calcium in the diet is also required and can be readily obtained from greens; white, navy and black beans; tofu and tempeh; fortified soy milk; and figs; among other wholefoods.

Calcium can be readily obtained from greens; white, navy and black beans; tofu and tempeh; fortified soy milk; and figs; among other wholefoods.

Healthy bones also require vitamin D, which we make when exposed to sunlight – another reason to get your kids outside playing games or sports. Depending on skin tone (with darker skin needing more sun), around 15 minutes during the middle of the day is generally enough. Supplements are available if sun exposure is less than this and, since vitamin D is a common deficiency population-wide, it’s a good idea for everyone, regardless of diet, to get their levels checked periodically by the family doctor.


Are meat and fish even safe for children?

A diet based on whole plant foods with sufficient calories easily meets the protein needs of kids, teens, and adults

The World Health Organization has classified processed meats, including bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs, and sausages as Group 1 carcinogens – meaning they have been proven to cause cancer. This puts them in the same category as tobacco, asbestos, and plutonium. You wouldn’t want your children smoking cigarettes, so it stands to reason you wouldn’t want to feed them a proven carcinogen either. Similarly, red meats, such as beef, lamb, and pork, are categorised as Group 2A carcinogens – meaning they probably cause cancer.


Considering seafood, our oceans have been used as an industrial sewer for the past 300 years, so fish and shellfish now contain toxic levels of mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and microplastics. Most of the world’s fisheries are now considered to be overfished or in collapse, and even fish farming is unsustainable. It’s a huge contributor to the problem of antibiotic overuse, which does not result in a healthy ‘product’ for human consumption.

Replacing protein from animals with protein from plants gives us all our essential amino acids while significantly reducing our risk of mortality from all causes

Like most animal foods, eggs have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. In fact, eggs are the leading source of cholesterol in the standard Western diet, and are also packed with saturated fat. They do contain some protein, but per 100 grams, they deliver about the same amount of protein as oats or whole wheat. Nuts, on the other hand, have significantly more protein per 100 grams than eggs. A diet based on whole plant foods with sufficient calories easily meets the protein needs of kids, teens, and adults. Even better, it has been shown that replacing protein from animals with protein from plants gives us all our essential amino acids while significantly reducing our risk of mortality from all causes.

This article is republished with permission from nourishmagazine.com.au.


More about the author

Dr Peter Johnston APD is Doctors For Nutrition's Lead Dietitan for Victoria. Find his full bio here.


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