By: Dr. Derek Kwan
Is this your first time here? Go back to PART. 1 of this blog and learn about plant-based diets for children with Dr. Derek Kwan one of San Diego’s Top Doctors. You will get a special view of some of his personal tips & tricks on how to design an appropriately planned diet, and the science behind a healthy plant-based plate.
Frequently Asked Questions about Plant-Based Diets
Even though it is clear that an appropriately planned plant-based diet is nutritionally adequate for children, there will always be skeptics who have questions.
Let’s address some of the more common questions and concerns:
- Protein. A lot of people wonder if it is possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet. The answer is yes, of course. Legumes and other plant-based sources of protein are more than enough to satisfy a child’s protein needs. In addition, plant proteins have the added advantage of not containing cholesterol and increased amounts of dioxins that are often found in animal protein.
- Calcium. It’s a common misconception that calcium only comes from cow’s milk. But the truth is that plant foods such as tofu, beans, and greens are very rich in calcium. Not only that, they contain a lot of phytonutrients that improve calcium absorption and utilization.
- Iron. For some reason, a lot of people worry about not getting enough iron when they adopt a plant-based diet. However, a variety of plant foods contain a lot of iron. These foods include leafy greens, tofu, beans, and lentils. When you pair these foods with other plant foods that are rich in Vitamin C (like citrus and berries), it further increases iron absorption.
- Vitamin D. This is produced in our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight. While busy adults who work indoors may find it challenging to get the sun exposure necessary to produce enough vitamin D, it’s often not a problem for kids. After all, it’s recommended for children to play outdoors for a few hours each day. This is usually enough exposure to produce adequate levels of vitamin D. If outdoor time in the sun is not possible, a supplement can be considered.
- Vitamin B12. All people who follow a strict vegetarian plant-based diet need a reliable source of vitamin B12. Sure, this can be found in a lot of animal products; but the primary reason for this is because animals consume feed that is supplemented with vitamin B12. While it can often be found in fortified plant-based milk and nutritional yeast, most experts generally recommend vitamin B12 supplementation to ensure adequate intake.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are essential. Because our bodies cannot produce them, we must take them in through our food. This can certainly be achieved by consuming fatty fish and fish oil. However, consuming a lot of fish can potentially increase your exposure to microplastics and toxic heavy metals. One solution to this problem is supplementing with algal oil, which is an excellent plant-based source of EPA and DHA. It is important to note that various plant foods (including flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts) are rich in Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is an essential fatty acid that is converted into DHA and EPA by the body. While it can be possible to consume enough ALA to produce adequate levels of DHA and EPA, it is more convenient to take an algal oil supplement. That’s what we do!
Making Healthy Plant-Based Meals at Home
Nowadays, making healthy plant-based meals at home is easier than ever. There are so many free recipe websites, blogs, and other online resources that make it incredibly simple and easy. Just type in your favorite dish or recipe and include the words “healthy”, “vegan”, or “plant-based” and you will undoubtedly get several different options to choose from.
Cooking our food at home is almost always healthier. This is because we know exactly what is in our food and how it is made. By only using whole plant food ingredients, we eliminate preservatives, colors, artificial flavors, or other chemicals that could be harmful to our health. When we control how food is prepared, we can use glass or stainless steel instead of plastic and non-stick cookware that can leach toxic chemicals into our food.
In addition, making food at home could be a lot of fun. It may even encourage young children to participate and help in food preparation. A perfect family activity!
My daughter loves helping out in the kitchen. One of her favorite foods to make and eat is sushi!
Here are some principles that we generally follow:
- Cook and eat minimally processed whole plant foods from all components of the healthy plant-based plate listed above.
- Sparingly use salt and oil. Minimize sugar and refined carbohydrates. Avoid processed foods and animal products as best as we can.
- Baking or steaming our ingredients using glass, stainless steel, or cast iron. No non-stick cookware.
- Use glass dishes as well as stainless steel containers and flatware, avoiding plastic as much as we can.
- Regularly take Vitamin B12 and algal oil omega-3 fatty acid supplement daily. We also regularly take vitamin D. In addition, our daughter takes whole food multivitamin gummies made from organic fruits and vegetables every day.
- Cook and eat dinner together as a family. This is our family bonding time.
Quick Tips For Beginners
Adopting a plant-based diet can be overwhelming at first. It could be quite a lifestyle change!
Here are some tips that could make the transition to a whole food plant-based diet easier:
- Pick your favorite dish and look up a plant-based version of it. You are more likely to stick with it if you enjoy the food.
- Keep meals easy and simple. Change is already hard. Don’t make it even harder by trying to cook complicated recipes.
- After developing a repertoire of simple meals, pick 5-10 easy ones and cook them on an ongoing rotation. These recipes can also be used as a default fallback meal when you are undecided on what to cook.
- Use plenty of herbs and spices. Not only do they make food taste more flavorful, herbs and spices also have phytonutrients that contain a variety of health benefits.
- Make sure to change it up every so often. Children can be picky eaters. Adding variety and making them excited about trying something new can help with this.
- Eat the rainbow. Children are naturally drawn to colorful things and a plant-based diet can incorporate a lot of color into your meals.
As parents, we should make it a priority to eat well and teach our kids good nutritional habits. It is important to show our kids how empowering and fun preparing healthy meals can be! A plant-based diet will certainly help in accomplishing these goals.
The answer is simple. Children can be healthy and thrive on an appropriately planned whole food plant-based diet. Look at my daughter. She is growing well and has boundless energy!
You can go all in like me and my family or you can take small steps and transition to a more plant-based diet. Take the first step by trying out some recipes and see how your kids enjoy and benefit from a plant-based diet!
Dr. Derek Kwan MD is a husband, father, anesthesiologist, and interventional pain specialist in San Diego, California. He works at Kaiser Permanente where he is a physician wellness champion and lead project manager of the physician wellness committee. San Diego Magazine has listed Dr. Kwan as one of San Diego’s Top Doctors.
Dr. Kwan is also the founder of Dr. McFrugal, a lifestyle website dedicated to helping people in various realms of life including personal finance, investing, health, wellness, plant-based diet and nutrition, travel, minimalism, environmentalism, and non-toxic clean living. He is also a Climate For Health Ambassador as well as the host of the Finding Meaning In and Out of Medicine wellness podcast. When he’s not at work, he really enjoys spending quality time with his wife and daughter, reading, working out, writing, and traveling.