Three strategies for discussing plant-based nutrition with pediatric patients

These diets are gaining traction within the healthcare space.

Growing concerns around animal fats, processed foods, and ecology are leading millions of Americans to choose meal options that center on fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes. These diets are also gaining traction within the healthcare space as more medical professionals recommend plant-based foods for patients struggling with weight maintenance or chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and ALS.

While health benefits are reported for adult patients incorporating more plant-based foods into their diet—such as decreased inflammation, improved gut health, and cardiovascular disease prevention—many parents are concerned about the safety of such diets for their children and teens. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children following vegetarian diets can meet their nutritional needs without compromising growth and benefit from diets that incorporate more whole plant-based foods.

Recent studies have found plant-based enteral formulas have been clinically proven to demonstrate improved health outcomes in pediatric patients. Research presented at the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NAPSGHAN) annual meeting demonstrated pediatric patients experienced improved tolerance, weight gain and adherence when prescribed pea protein plant-based enteral formula (PP PBEF) is used, whether used orally or through a feeding tube.

How can physicians help pediatric patients transition to a healthier diet using more plant-based foods? Here are three strategies for discussing plant-based foods and diets with patients and their families to help them find a nutrition plan that fits their lifestyle.

Help them understand the health-related benefits

As medical professionals, we have a unique opportunity to educate patients and families on the benefits of plant-based foods and their role in providing healthy nutrition. Many will adopt these lessons to benefit their entire family’s lifestyle, increasing the likelihood of everyone adhering to their physicians’ recommendations.

Plant-based foods contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients that are often missing according to the CDC and National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) data. Moreover, replacing animal-based foods with plant-based options also eliminates or significantly decreases patients’ intake of saturated fats and cholesterol—ingredients that can lead to obesity and heart disease.

As I often tell my patients, just as we brush our teeth with toothpaste to prevent cavities and keep teeth healthy, we need to “brush” our intestines with fruits and vegetables to enhance their intestinal microbiome and lessen health concerns. While kids may not enjoy brushing their teeth or their intestines, it’s important for their health and will improve their overall quality of life. They often understand the visual picture, when I ask what would happen if they only brushed their teeth once a week.

Address any barriers to plant-based nutrition

When discussing diets with pediatric patients and their families, it’s important to meet them where they are with their current lifestyle and address any obstacles that may prevent them from adopting a more plant-based style of eating. For some, these obstacles could be cost concerns or the perception that plant-based foods are inconvenient and unappealing.

If patients or their families view a plant-based lifestyle as expensive or difficult, especially compared to fast food restaurants or processed foods, physicians can provide tips and resources for making whole foods more accessible. For example, physicians can encourage parents to replace less healthy, and sometimes expensive, processed foods at the grocery store with affordable, nutritious options that fit within their budget (frozen fruits and vegetables are usually good options, but sugary juices aren’t). Also, kids look to their parents, who can lead by example with the food choices they offer and eat. Additionally, fruit and vegetable prescription programs are growing nationwide, meaning that health care providers may be able to provide patient vouchers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from participating local farmers’ markets.

Find a solution that works for them

While physicians play a critical role in helping patients select options that support their individual health needs, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, patients facing difficulty gaining or maintaining weight do not need to become strictly vegetarian to benefit from plant-based nutrients.

Improving patients’ nutrition literacy and helping them overcome barriers to healthy nutrition are two vital approaches for discussing plant-based options with pediatric patients and their families. While physicians can provide evidence-based information and counseling on plant-based diets for children and teens, it’s also important to promote parents as positive role models of healthy, mindful eating.

Encouraging the whole family to experience the benefits of plant-based foods is similar in many ways to advocating an active lifestyle, since both can improve their potential for a longer, healthier lifetime.

About the Author

Stanley A. Cohen, MD is a pediatric gastroenterologist with GI Care for Kids and the CEO and chairman of the Medical Advisory Board of Nutrition4Kids.com and Nutrition4IBD.com. Dr. Cohen is actively engaged in research to further understand how plant-based enteral formulas like Kate Farms can benefit pediatric patients and help them experience improved tolerance, adherence and weight maintenance, and ultimately improve their overall quality of life.