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Childhood Obesity Awareness Month
One in three children in the United States is overweight or obese. Fortunately, by eating a plant-based diet and avoiding high-fat animal products, children can reduce their chances of obesity and its related health problems.
Childhood obesity puts kids at high risk for health problems that were once seen only in adults, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. For many years, type 2 diabetes was referred to as “adult onset diabetes.” Right now, one in three children in America will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life, and one in five already has a cholesterol problem.
Unhealthful diet practices aren’t only found in children; infants can also suffer from higher-than-recommended calorie intake. This can significantly raise an infant’s risk of obesity in the future, which could be a lifelong battle.
Adolescents face a similar problem. Many teens consume higher-than-recommended amounts of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. However, in spite of their higher energy intake, adolescents are not well nourished and frequently fail to achieve required intakes of essential nutrients, such as vitamins A and C. Children continue to grow and develop into their early 20s, so they can’t afford to miss out on these vital nutrients. Switching out highly processed foods and sugary beverages, also known as “empty-calorie foods,” with healthful, whole plant foods ensures that growing kids get all the nutrients they need, while helping them maintain an appropriate weight.
Vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits are the optimal foods for both children and adults. These food groups are cholesterol free, high in fiber, low in fat, and rich in health-promoting nutrients found only in plants. They are also rich in healthful carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals—the nutrients all bodies, especially growing children, need. Foods from the plant kingdom are also excellent sources of protein and calcium—two nutrients typically associated with meat and dairy products.
Not only can children get adequate nutrition living a plant-based lifestyle, they can truly thrive. In one study, pediatric developmental tests in vegetarian children indicated mental age advanced over a year beyond chronological age, and mean IQ was well above average (with an average of 116 points), providing reassurance that brain development is normal.
The ease with which kids transition into, and stick with, this healthful dietary pattern can be positively influenced by a variety of factors. Family support is critical: Parents can provide healthful foods, set a good example, and talk to their children about nutrition.
With the variety of vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruits available, creating a plant-based school lunch is extremely simple. For parents concerned that their child’s meal will be “different,” try vegan meat substitutes, soy cheese, or soy yogurt. Leftovers are another quick and easy lunchtime alternative. Experiment with these suggestions:
- Sandwiches: Try hummus or another bean spread with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and shredded carrots in pita bread. Many health food stores and some grocery stores sell vegan deli slices that look and taste like bologna, Canadian bacon, roast beef, and turkey. Serve on whole-grain bread with soy cheese, mustard, lettuce, and tomato. Peanut butter is an old standby. For variety, try other nut butters, such as cashew, almond, or hazelnut with sliced banana or peaches on whole-wheat bread. Cutting sandwiches into novel shapes is fun for kids.
- Hot meals: Fill a wide-mouth thermos with just-made or leftover pasta and tomato sauce, hearty bean soup, veggie chili, or stew. Or make your own vegetarian version of “franks-and-beans” using vegetarian hot dogs and vegetarian baked beans.
- Soups: Warm your child with homemade vegetable or bean soups. If you are short on time, try a low-sodium instant soup. Just stir hot water into the soup mix and pour into a thermos. Round off the meal with some crackers, crunchy baby carrots, and soy or rice milk.
- Side dishes: Choose a couple of the following suggestions to complete your child’s meal: individual boxes of soy or rice milk, soy yogurt, chopped vegetables and dip, whole-grain breads or crackers, homemade muffins, rice cakes, pretzels, or fresh fruit. Although the United States Department of Agriculture still mandates that cow’s milk be served with school lunches, many schools will allow juice or soy milk to be substituted if you present a note.