Is a Plant-Based Diet Right for Your Special Needs Child?

You’ve probably heard people talk about veganism or a plant-based diet over the last few years. This diet has become increasingly popular among adults in the 18 to 24 age bracket.  But it’s not just the younger crowd, there are many famous Americans who are vegan. These include Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, former Vice-President Al Gore, Ellen DeGeneres, Samuel Jackson, and many more. But is a plant-based diet right for your special needs child?

The main emphasis for a person on a plant-based diet is that they do not eat any animal product. This includes meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs. This is the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian because many vegetarians do not commit fully to a plant-based diet. Some eat eggs, dairy products, and even fish.

Exploring Plant-Based Diets for Special Needs Children

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Navigating dietary choices for special needs children requires careful consideration. This article delves into the suitability of a plant-based diet and the factors to weigh when making nutrition decisions for your child.

Understanding Plant-Based Diets: Pros and Cons

  1. Pros of a Plant-Based Diet:
    • Rich in essential nutrients: Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains provide vital vitamins and minerals.
    • Potential for improved digestion: Plant-based diets often contain more fiber, aiding in digestive health.
    • Lower saturated fat content: A plant-based diet may contribute to heart health and weight management.
  2. Cons to Consider:
    • Nutrient concerns: Ensuring adequate intake of essential nutrients like B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.
    • Potential allergens: Some plant-based foods may trigger allergies, necessitating careful monitoring.

Tailoring a Plant-Based Diet to Special Needs: Key Considerations

  1. Individual Nutritional Needs:
    • Consult with a healthcare professional or nutritionist to assess your child’s specific nutritional requirements.
    • Consider supplements if certain nutrients are challenging to obtain from plant-based sources.
  2. Allergies and Sensitivities:
    • Identify potential allergens in plant-based foods and adjust the diet accordingly.
    • Monitor for any adverse reactions and consult with a healthcare professional if concerns arise.
  3. Texture and Sensory Considerations:
    • Address sensory sensitivities by exploring a variety of plant-based textures.
    • Experiment with different cooking methods to find what suits your child’s preferences.

Plant-Based Alternatives and Recipe Ideas

  1. Protein-Rich Options:
    • Incorporate plant-based protein sources such as tofu, lentils, beans, and quinoa into meals.
    • Explore meat alternatives like plant-based burgers or nuggets.
  2. Calcium and Vitamin D Sources:
    • Include fortified plant-based milk alternatives for calcium and vitamin D.
    • Incorporate leafy greens, almonds, and chia seeds for additional calcium.
  3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
    • Add flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts to the diet for plant-based omega-3s.
    • Consider algae-based supplements for DHA, a crucial omega-3 fatty acid.

Consult a Healthcare Professional

Embarking on a plant-based diet can offer numerous health benefits, from improved heart health to a reduced carbon footprint. However, individuals with special needs or underlying health conditions should approach dietary changes with care and seek expert advice. Consulting a doctor before transitioning to a plant-based diet is crucial, especially for those with specific dietary requirements or medical concerns.

A healthcare professional can provide personalized guidance, ensuring that the diet accommodates any unique nutritional needs and does not interfere with existing health conditions or medications. For example, certain individuals may require additional supplementation or adjustments to their diet to maintain balanced nutrition and avoid deficiencies in essential nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly addressed concerns in a plant-based diet.

Moreover, a doctor can help monitor health markers and adjust dietary recommendations as needed, ensuring the transition is both safe and beneficial. Whether it’s managing diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, or other chronic conditions, a tailored approach can make all the difference.

Balancing Nutrition and Individual Needs

While a plant-based diet can offer various health benefits, the decision to adopt one for a special needs child requires thoughtful consideration. By working closely with healthcare professionals and tailoring the diet to meet individual nutritional needs, you can explore the potential benefits of a plant-based approach while ensuring your child’s overall well-being.

Here are 5 things you should consider before switching your child over to a strictly plant-based diet:

A Plant-Based Diet Does Not Include Dairy

Consuming dairy products can be a major obstacle for children with special needs. Perhaps you have already removed all dairy products from your special needs child’s diet. If you have done so, this is great. It means that you’re one step closer to putting your child on a plant-based diet. This type of diet has many health benefits.

“What about making sure my child gets enough calcium? Isn’t dairy milk the best source of this important mineral?” While dairy milk does have 300mg of calcium in an 8oz. glass, you can replace this with almond milk. Almond milk is fortified with natural calcium. How much is in an 8oz. glass depends on which brand you buy. Some have more, some have less, be sure you read the label to make sure the almond milk you are buying has as much calcium as cow’s milk or more.

If your child happens to have a nut allergy, there is always rice, soy, or coconut milk. Did you know that chocolate coconut milk tastes a lot like a Mounds candy bar? Your child is sure to love this type of milk! Some research has shown that soy in a child’s diet may cause certain hormones to develop early, so you may consider rice milk as a safe alternative.

A Plant-Based Diet Is Rich in Fiber

A common health issue for children with special needs is constipation. This, in large part, is due to a fiber deficiency. Many children with special needs have cravings for fast food – who doesn’t, right? To make matters worse, they have a hard time hearing that they should eat it in moderation, so many parents, to keep the peace, let their child eat whatever they want. But is a plant-based diet right for your special needs child? A plant-based diet will be a tough transition at first, but as your child gets used to the new flavors, they will find them more and more satisfying, making their fiber goals easier to achieve.

One of the more common health problems faced by children with special needs is constipation. The most common cause of this is a lack of fiber in their diet. Many children with special needs seem to have an endless craving for fast food! Well, who doesn’t, at least from time to time? These kids have a hard time being told they should eat these types of foods in moderation. Because of this, their parents give in just to keep the peace.

Transitioning your special needs child over to a plant-based diet can be pretty tough at first. Be patient and let your child set the pace to a certain extent. You certainly don’t want to push too hard as this can lead to rebellion. The good news is that the more your child tries and acclimates to the new flavors and foods, they will come to enjoy them more and more. The end result is that by making this transition your child will have no problem reaching their recommended fiber intake. In turn, this should help relieve their constipation, everyone wins!

A Plant-Based Diet Can Be Just as Rich in Protein … If You’re Mindful

You probably hear a lot of concern about protein deficiency with plant-based diets, but protein can be found in many foods that do not come from animals. Among these are:

  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Peanuts
  • Black Beans
  • Quinoa
  • Broccoli
  • Chia Seeds

These foods may not be found in your child’s diet yet, so again, the transition will take some time, but eventually, you won’t have to worry if your child is getting enough protein.

A Plant-Based Diet Does Not Naturally Include B12 Vitamins

The one major vitamin that you can’t get from a plant-based diet, naturally, is B12. Many vegan foods have to be fortified with B12 so that those on a plant-based diet don’t run the risk of heart disease or anemia. There are also vegan gummy vitamins available to ensure your child gets all the B12 they need.

A Plant-Based Diet Does Not Include Fish Oils

Some studies have shown that fish oil supplements can help with behaviors for those with autism. If your child is on a strict plant-based diet, then fish oil would not be included. However, there’s no rule that says you have to go all-in. If you want your child to be on a predominantly plant-based diet for health reasons but also have them take fish oil supplements for behavioral reasons, then that’s perfectly fine! The vegan police are not coming for you.

Consult with your doctor before making any major changes to your child’s diet. This article is not intended to substitute the guidance of a licensed practitioner.

If you’re interested in enhancing your child’s health, another factor that can play a huge role is regular exercise. Sign your child up for private training sessions or a local boot camp today!

Special Strong provides adaptive fitness for children, adolescents, and adults with mental, physical and cognitive challenges. Start your own Special Strong gym franchise today and create a lasting impact on your community.