By Sarena-Rae Santos, Natural Health Blogger
Have you ever thought about going plant-based, maybe having your child(ren) tag along for the journey, but the tenacious myths flood your mind?
Where will you get protein? Where will you get B12? What about your cheese addiction? Thankfully, it will be easier for your child than for you, but we will still focus on children because change can be hard on them, especially if they don’t understand why.
There are so many plant-based lifestyle choices out there. Vegan. Plant-based. Whole food plant-based. What are they all, and what makes them all unique?
What is Plant-Based?
A vegan lifestyle focuses on avoiding animal products entirely, such as meat, eggs, dairy, and even honey. A vegan lifestyle also entails an element of morality and compassion toward animals to not exploit them for food, clothing, and other purposes (1). A vegan lifestyle has many benefits due to avoiding all these hazardous foods but is often replaced with processed junk foods that can be equally as dangerous as the foods being eliminated. Vegan ≠ Healthy!
A plant-based lifestyle is similar to a vegan lifestyle, predominantly revolving around plant foods. Some plant-based individuals will periodically eat animal ingredients but proportionately choose more foods from plant sources (2). This is why store-bought plant-based foods sometimes contain eggs or milk. Notably, a plant-based lifestyle is one of the healthiest lifestyles, especially if you avoid meat, dairy, and processed choices altogether; this is what I choose to do.
Whole food plant-based is similar to a plant-based lifestyle, excluding all animal products and dairy products while including natural foods that are not heavily processed. Whole food products are natural, unrefined, or minimally refined (i.e., whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes). Typically, those who have adopted a whole food plant-based lifestyle avoid added sugars, white flour, and processed oil (3). A whole food plant-based lifestyle is the healthiest but challenging to follow, especially if you’re just transitioning.
Although whole food plant-based is the healthiest lifestyle for most people, it’s not easy for everyone. I am a mix between plant-based and whole food plant-based and have been on this journey since the beginning of 2020. I avoid soy and gluten due to allergies and sensitivities. I also avoid anything that comes from an animal, except honey. I eat relatively clean, almost always at home, and limited, if any, processed foods. I also am very cautious about the types of oils I consume. I prefer to know what I eat by making it myself.
This article will discuss:
- The benefits of a plant-based lifestyle
- How to eat a balanced diet
- How to prevent deficiencies
- The importance of reading labels
- Kid-friendly meal and snack ideas
Whether you’re looking to be entirely plant-based or just starting with meatless Mondays, this is the perfect guide to get you started.
Feeding Plant-Based Kids
A plant-based lifestyle delivers advantages, including:
- An excellent source of fiber (4)
- Helping prevent cancer (5)
- Reducing inflammation (6)
- Supporting the immune system (7)
- Influencing gut health (8)
- Improving mental clarity and thinking (9)
- A lighter environmental footprint (10)
To learn the benefits of adopting a plant-based lifestyle, check out my article Why Adopt A Plant-Based Lifestyle, here.
A Balanced Diet?
I was taught a balanced diet through the food pyramid as a kid. Before it was changed in 2005, we were instructed to eat the following daily:
- 6-11 servings from the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group
- 3-5 servings from the vegetable group
- 2-4 servings from the fruit group
- 2-3 servings from the milk, yogurt, and cheese group
- 2-3 servings from the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts group (11)
We were also advised to consume fats, oils, and sweets sparingly.
When this changed in 2005, the new guidelines suggested eating the following daily:
- 6 ounces of grains
- 2.5 cups of vegetables
- 2 cups of fruit
- 3 cups of milk
- 5.5 ounces of meat and beans (11)
The new food pyramid is more flexible, adjustable, and accurate, making it easier to maintain a balanced diet without overeating. I like ChooseMyPlate’s alternative. They recommend dividing a plate by 30 percent grains, 30 percent vegetables, 20 percent fruits, and 20 percent protein, accompanied by a smaller circle for dairy (11).
Additionally, the new guidelines make it much easier to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. However, there are still crucial elements one must understand, such as amino acids, proteins, complete proteins, and fats.
Amino acids are the structure of the protein macronutrient. Your body needs 20 amino acids to function correctly. Nine of the 20 essential amino acids must be consumed through the food you eat (12). The nine essential amino acids are:
- Valine (13)
Protein is a macronutrient essential to much more than just building muscle mass. Protein is needed to structure, function, and regulate the body’s tissues and organs. Proteins comprise hundreds or thousands of smaller units called amino acids, which are attached in long chains. Up to 20 different types of amino acids can be combined to make a protein (14). Protein is commonly found in animal products, but where do you think animals get it from? – plants.
A complete protein is a food that contains the nine essential amino acids that our body cannot produce on its own. All plant-based foods have protein, but most are not considered complete proteins (15). The most common plant-based complete protein is soybeans, usually tofu, tempeh, soy milk, etc.
I do not recommend soy. I am allergic to soy, but allergy aside, although soybeans have some health benefits, we must remember that most non-organic soy products are brimming with GMOs. GMOs have less nutritional value and more toxic effects due to the chemicals involved in the genetic modification process (16). Soybeans contain compounds like phytate, which may interfere with the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals crucial for vegan and plant-based dietary demands (17). These same anti-nutrient compounds may also cause digestive issues due to a reduction in the gut’s barrier functions, resulting in inflammation that causes these digestive problems (18).
Learn more regarding The Truth About Soy Products here.
Some healthier plant-based complete proteins include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Sprouted bread
- Rice and beans
- Tahini hummus
Fats, in moderation, are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. Fats are a source of essential fatty acids, meaning the body cannot make them. For instance, omega-3 fatty acids contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fats help the body absorb vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin E. These vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning they can only be absorbed with the help of fats (19). Of course, that means it’s crucial to choose healthy fats rich in omega-3s, such as:
- Avocados/avocado oil
- Olives/olive oil
- Chia seeds
- Cacao nibs
Deficiencies seem to be the number one concern when people hear “plant-based,” I am here to tell you that that doesn’t have to be a concern. If you take the time to educate yourself on balancing your meals, you should only need to supplement one vitamin–B12.
The most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies include vitamin D, calcium, zinc, iron, iodine, and B12 (20). This section is dedicated to learning where to find these vitamins and minerals without fortified foods (synthetic vitamins). Most people seem to grab a multivitamin. Personally, I think that approach is unhealthy and overplayed. Learn more regarding The Truth About Multivitamins here. If you think you may have a deficiency, take this quiz here.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient we eat and a hormone our bodies make. This nutrient helps our body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, both vital for building bone. Studies have demonstrated vitamin D can diminish cancer cell growth, help battle infections and reduce inflammation (21).
Vitamin D is usually found in animal products but is still in plant-based foods. One of the richest plant-based sources of vitamin D besides fortified foods is mushrooms grown in sunlight, which contains about 450 IU per 100-gram serving (22). Additionally, sun exposure is the easiest way to get vitamin D (23).
You may not need a daily vitamin D supplement if you incorporate mushrooms into your diet and spend time outside. The best mushrooms for vitamin D are portobello, maitake, morel, button, and shiitake. I am not a huge fan of mushrooms; most mushrooms are grown in the dark too. Still, you can slice your store-bought mushrooms, place them on a tray, and leave them outside in the sun for a few hours to soak up vitamin D. Since I don’t eat mushrooms often, I supplement with MaryRuth’s Vegan Vitamin D3+K2 Liquid Spray. Before my plant-based journey, I had great success with Earthley’s Vitamin D Cream and would recommend that for those who are not entirely plant-based.
Calcium is essential for the function of many enzymes, blood clotting, muscle contraction, normal heart rhythm as well as the formation of bone and teeth (24). Your heart, muscles, and nerves also need calcium to function properly. Some studies indicate that calcium and vitamin D may protect against cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure (25).
When we hear calcium, we usually think of milk. Aside from containing hormones and pus, consuming traditional dairy has been linked to risks, such as an increased risk of broken bones, diabetes, ovarian cancer, and antibiotic resistance. Learn more regarding The Truth About Cow’s Milk here. Some plant-based sources of calcium include beans, almonds, seeds, ancient grains, seaweed, leafy greens, and some fruits.
If your diet doesn’t revolve around processed foods, even without fortified foods, you should be able to go without a calcium supplement. Personally, I do not take one, but if I needed one, I would use MaryRuth’s Organic Cal+Mag. However, I take Earthley’s Nourish Her Naturally as a multivitamin containing nettle, a rich source of calcium.
Zinc is a nutrient in your body and food that assists your immune system and metabolism while improving wound healing and sense of taste and smell (26). Zinc is also responsible for gene expression, enzymatic reactions, immune function, protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, wound healing, growth and development, and more.
Zinc is easiest found in animal products, but that’s not the only source. Some plant-based sources of zinc include:
- Seeds (hemp, pumpkin, chia, flax)
- Mushrooms (shiitake, white button)
- Beans (black, lima)
- Wild rice
Zinc is widely available through plant-based foods, so you shouldn’t need a supplement. I take zinc because I have an autoimmune disease and the immune-boosting benefits are fantastic. I use MaryRuth’s Ionic Zinc but only a quarter dose per day. Another great whole food option is Garden of Life’s Vitamin Code Raw Zinc Capsules. Additionally, Earthley’s Oyster-Min Capsules are another great whole food option for those who are not entirely plant-based.
Iron is an essential mineral that helps transport oxygen throughout the body. Iron is a crucial component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs throughout your body (27). Iron deficiencies are common in plant-based people and can usually be identified by feeling cold all the time, brittle nails, restless legs/muscle twitches, and hair thinning or loss.
High iron sources are usually associated with meat and eggs, but where do you think they get it from? Plant-based sources of iron include:
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, pine nuts, macadamia nuts)
- Seeds (pumpkin, sesame, hemp, flaxseeds)
- Leafy greens (spinach, kale, swiss chard)
- Potatoes with skin
- Oyster mushrooms
- Hearts of palm
- Whole grains
I do not need an iron supplement with such a variety of iron-rich foods but would recommend Earthley’s Energy Plus to those who do.
Iodine is a trace mineral naturally found in seawater and certain soils (28). Iodine is an essential mineral for the body. The thyroid gland uses it to generate thyroid hormones responsible for many functions, including inducing body growth and development, including the brain, especially for the fetus during pregnancy (29).
The richest sources of iodine are usually seafood, especially oysters. As someone severely sensitive to seafood, triggering migraines, that’s never been an option for me. Seaweed is another option for iodine, but I’m not a fan of that either. If you’re like me, you’re not doomed. Other plant-based sources of iodine include:
- Whole grains
- Green beans
- Spring greens
- Potatoes with skin
If, even with all that, you’re still struggling with your iodine levels, you’re not alone. I recommend and personally take MaryRuth’s Nascent Iodine.
Vitamin B12 is essential to form red blood cells and DNA. Vitamin B12 binds to the protein in the foods we consume and play a fundamental role in the functionality and development of brain and nerve cells (30).
Unfortunately, naturally occurring vitamin B12 is almost solely found in animal products, except for chlorella, spirulina, seaweed, cremini mushrooms, and fortified foods like nutritional yeast and milk. Unfortunately, the natural, unfortified options are not a reliable source of vitamin B12. With that said, plant-based individuals usually need to supplement this vitamin. I use MaryRuth’s Organic Methyl B12 Liquid Spray. Methylated cobalamin (methylcobalamin) is naturally occurring instead of synthetic and has shown superior bioavailability (31), so I chose this form of vitamin B12!
Kid-Friendly Meal/Snack Ideas
Now that you know all the basics for going plant-based, it’s time to figure out meals and snacks that your kids (and you) will enjoy. Aside from the traditional carrots and peanut butter or cucumbers and ranch dressing, the snack possibilities are endless. The following recipes can be found on my blog. The Holistic Hipppie is dedicated to natural health and plant-based eating. All recipes are vegan-friendly, plant-based, soy-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free.
- Pumpkin Seed Tofu Alternative (Pumfu)
- Pumfu Parmesan (Plant-Based Chicken Parmesan)
- Chinese Sesame Pumfu (Plant-Based Chinese Sesame Chicken)
- Sesame Sticky Rice
- Homemade Walnut Meat
- Feta-Garlic Farfalle Pasta
- Feta-Pesto Garlic Bread
- Air-Fried Carrot BaCAN’T (Bacon)
- Fresh Corn Salsa
- Cashew-Based Mozzarella Cheese
- Almond Ricotta Cheese
- Thick & Creamy Oat Milk
- Zesty-Creamy Ranch Dressing
So many foods you eat now can be plant-based with a few quick swaps. Some simple swaps you could make to make an already loved meal plant-based include:
- Milk: Plant-based milk alternatives (I like oat milk)
- Heavy Cream: Coconut Cream (Native Forest is a clean option)
- Eggs in baking: 1 tbsp. ground flax or 1 tbsp. chia seed + 3 tbsp. Water
- Cream Cheese: Myikos (organic options) or Violife (clean options)
- Sour Cream: Forager Project Plain Yogurt (organic options)
- Mayo: Primal Kitchen Vegan Mayo (clean option)
- Cheese: Myikos (organic options) or Violife (clean options)
- Butter: Myikos (organic options)
Feel free to join The Holistic Hipppie’s Facebook Community for weekly swaps discussing healthier food options that are plant-based.
Some great snack and meal ideas that your kids may already love that may need a simple ingredient swap to make plant-based may be:
- Carrots with peanut butter or ranch dressing
- Celery with peanut butter or ranch dressing
- Dates with peanut butter and/or chocolate chips
- Salads topped with beans, fruits, and veggies
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
- Fruit salad
- Pasta salad
- Macaroni salad
- Loaded french fries
- Yogurt topped with fruit and granola
- Avocado toast
- Grilled cheese
- Burrito bowls
- Tacos (Use Walnut Meat)
- Chips and salsa
- Popcorn (I love it with butter, garlic, salt, and nutritional yeast)
- Rice and beans (I love this with tostones)
I know this is a lot of information to process. I am still processing new information years into my plant-based journey. I am not saying this is the easiest transition, but it is oh, so worth it (at least in my opinion). I hope you find these lists beneficial and find yourself implementing more plant-based meals in your home.