When I was 26, I had a humbling moment that would change my life’s trajectory.
I was writing my master’s thesis on the environmental impacts of the standard American diet when I suddenly realized that my food choices didn’t reflect my personal ethics or values.
This was particularly ironic because I’m a dietitian — someone who had dedicated herself to teaching others about the importance of nutrition.
Through my research, I became uncomfortably aware of social, ethical, and environmental issues that I had never considered. What stood out to me was how interconnected our everyday food choices are with all other life on the planet.
For example, I learned how runoff from industrial animal farms contaminates waterways, which can affect ecosystem health and the safety of the water we drink. I also learned that we could address world hunger more effectively by feeding crops to people rather than livestock.
Through my food choices, I was supporting industrial animal agriculture while calling myself an environmentalist or an animal lover. This cognitive dissonance was a perfect illustration of the disconnect between people and the food they eat.
The food on my plate affected the entire world — and not in a good way. So, over several months, I transitioned from a meat-heavy Western diet to a predominantly whole-foods, plant-based eating pattern.
When I had kids, I decided to raise them on a plant-based diet from the start.
Here’s why my children are plant-based, and why I teach them things about food that I didn’t know until I was 26.
“Plant-based” is a fairly broad term often used to describe variations of a vegetarian diet. It may mean a vegan diet that excludes all animal products, a diet made mostly of plants with small amounts of animal products like cheese or fish, or anywhere in between.
Regardless, a plant-based diet generally emphasizes whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Of course, semantics aren’t the point. What matters most is understanding the reasons why more people are adopting plant-based diets — and having conversations about those reasons.
What if I told you that I’m raising my kids plant-based so that they can help create a better future for themselves and the rest of the human race? You might think I’m being dramatic, and I totally get it.
Still, according to the most comprehensive analysis to date of how modern farming destroys the environment, the biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint is to stop eating meat and dairy (
The environmental impacts of meat were also highlighted in a 2018 editorial by The Lancet, one of the most respected medical journals in the world (
If we don’t take drastic action to treat the environment differently, we’re looking at a future of more intense climate change (
This would likely mean less available freshwater, more extreme temperatures, more droughts and wildfires, and rising sea levels that flood coastal communities, among other global effects (4).
The good news is that you and your kids can make a change today for a better future. Here’s why a plant-based diet is better for the planet.
Helps conserve land and water usage
Earth’s resources are finite, yet the demand for animal products uses a lot of resources.
To create enough land to graze beef cattle and grow crops like soy that are primarily used to feed animals, entire forests are razed in places like the Amazon rainforest (
Furthermore, when you take into account the water required to raise the cow and grow food for it, some sources estimate that it takes 1,800 gallons (6,814 liters) of water to produce 1 pound (0.45 kg) of beef (6).
Why does this matter? The United Nations reports that the world will only have 60% of the water we need in 2030 if we continue business as usual (7).
Helps protect the ocean
All of the chemicals, waste, and contaminants from industrial animal farms have to go somewhere, and that often means waterways. Every waterway eventually runs into the ocean, where it has lasting effects, such as creating dead zones.
Dead zones are areas where harmful algae have bloomed and deprived the ocean of oxygen, making it impossible for most aquatic life to survive. By 2008, there were at least 400 dead zones worldwide, with one of the largest — in the Gulf of Mexico — the size of the state of New Jersey (8,
Scientists predict major ecosystem collapse and mass extinctions if this pattern isn’t reversed (10).
Helps preserve biodiversity
It takes a delicate balance of plants, animals, and insects to keep ecosystems thriving. When we deforest the Amazon, we’re also destroying the habitats of many native species, including people.
These former forests are largely replaced by herds of grazing cattle or used as farmland to grow crops, such as soy, to feed livestock (
What’s more, many components needed to make lifesaving modern medicines have originated from plants in the rainforest, which are quickly disappearing (12).
Helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Major greenhouse gases (GHG) include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide, and methane, all of which are produced by industrial animal agriculture. When GHG are released into the atmosphere, they contribute to global warming (
While the focus on reducing GHGs has long been on buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, livestock are responsible for approximately the same amount of emissions as all of transportation. Each sector contributes approximately 14–15% of global GHGs (13, 14, 15).
Notably, cows produce methane, which is approximately 30 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2. Since around 60% of all mammals on Earth at any given time are farmed animals, that’s a lot of methane (16,
Plus, the Amazon rainforest plays a significant role in regulating climate because its trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. When the forests are chopped and burned to make space for grazing cattle, this CO2 is rereleased into the atmosphere (
Although a plant-based diet still requires natural resources, its environmental impacts are smaller. Plus, growing plants for human consumption results in a much larger yield.
Moreover, by feeding more crops directly to people instead of livestock, we could use food resources more efficiently and better address world hunger. One study suggested that making this shift in crop usage could increase the global availability of calories by as much as 70% (20).
Whatever a plant-based diet looks like for your family, the research is clear that the most sustainable way of eating is heavily focused on plants, with animal products minimized or excluded entirely (
In addition to saving animals and helping reduce many of the current stresses on the environment, a plant-based diet can do wonders for long-term health (
Specific advantages for children
For my kids in particular, I love that a plant-based diet has positioned disease-fighting foods like beans, leafy greens, lentils, and seeds as a foundation of our meals instead of merely side dishes.
I also love that my kids are learning to recognize these foods as the norm rather than animal-based snacks and fast foods heavily marketed to children.
Plus, research suggests that since plaque buildup in the arteries starts in childhood, starting plant-based diets early on may prevent heart disease later in life. Other studies note a small but possible correlation between dairy intake in childhood and a higher risk of prostate cancer in adulthood (
These are benefits that can serve kids now and for life.
Despite the evidence in support of plant-based diets, critics say that it’s not safe or appropriate to exclude animal products from a child’s diet.
One of the biggest arguments against plant-based diets for kids is that they don’t provide enough fat, protein, or micronutrients like calcium and iron, all of which are important for growth and development.
However, highly respected professional organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics note that well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy, nutritionally adequate, and appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including infancy and childhood (
One study compared energy and macronutrient intake, as well as growth, in 1–3-year-old vegan, vegetarian, and omnivorous kids in Germany.
The researchers found that an omnivorous diet included more protein and added sugar while a vegan diet boasted more carbs and fiber. They concluded that a plant-based diet can meet their nutritional needs and support normal growth patterns (
While animal products are one way to get important nutrients for kids, they’re certainly not the only, or necessarily the best, ones out there.
My kids enjoy a fiber-rich diet full of disease-fighting antioxidants from plants. They get fat from avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil; protein from tofu, seitan, and beans; and a wide array of vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables.
They also enjoy dessert — it’s just made using plant ingredients.
We take supplements when needed, as many people do regardless of their diet.
Importantly, my kids have experienced normal growth and development with no nutritional concerns from their pediatrician or dietitian mama.
Making a plant-based switch is a family affair, so make it enjoyable! Involve your kids in things like meal planning, picking out new foods to try, or even preparing dishes in the kitchen. These ideas help make it fun while focusing on nutrition and keeping things simple.
When you adjust your family’s diet, keep in mind individual needs and potential obstacles. The most important thing is to identify your goals and implement changes that make the most sense for your household.
Here are some tips that can make a plant-based switch with kids a little easier:
- Identify your motivation. Having a “why” behind making a lifestyle change makes it more meaningful and sustainable long term. This is a great conversation to have as a family, with everyone’s input.
- Start slowly. I believe that the most feasible lifestyle changes are done gradually. This may look like adopting a vegan diet 1–2 days a week, or just at breakfast. It may look like removing chicken as a first step. There’s no wrong answer for where to begin.
- Make intentional changes. Look at your family’s current diet and decide which changes are going to be made. Meal planning for the week ahead is a great habit to help prevent last-minute stress. This is also an opportunity to learn how to replace items like pulled pork (try jackfruit), scrambled eggs (go for crumbled tofu), and ground beef (try lentils).
- Experiment. A plant-based diet isn’t about removing dishes, it’s about learning new ways to enjoy old favorites.
- Try “flax eggs” in muffin and cake batter. 1 egg = 1 tablespoon (10 grams) of ground flaxseeds and 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of water.
- Make whipped cream with canned coconut milk.
- Use chia seeds and soy milk to make nondairy pudding.
- Prioritize nutrition. While countless vegan foods are available today, these products make it easy to rely on packaged foods more than you may like. A variety of whole plant foods is the best approach to meet nutritional needs.
- Keep it simple. Plant-based diets don’t have to be costly or time-consuming. You can make plenty of nutritious meals using inexpensive ingredients like tofu, canned beans and lentils, dry grains, frozen veggies, and seasonal produce. Herbs and spices can make all the difference as your child’s taste buds adapt.
- Supplement smartly. Supplementing with certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins B12 and D, is vital on a totally plant-based diet. Some parents choose to use a multivitamin, while others prefer individual nutrients. Speak to a dietitian knowledgeable in vegan nutrition for personalized advice.
My kids are young, so conversations are simple right now.
They know that we don’t eat animals, but some people do and that’s OK. I talk to them about how pigs, cows, and chickens are just like our dog and deserve the same treatment. They also know that not eating animals helps keep nature beautiful so we can all continue to enjoy playing outside.
What they don’t totally understand yet is that eating more plant foods now is an investment in their long-term health, as well as the health of the planet, which they can enjoy as they grow up.
I understand that the idea of switching to a plant-based diet may feel overwhelming at first. I’ve been there.
There are many misconceptions about plant-based diets being expensive, difficult, nutritionally inadequate, or even bland. However, with some planning and practice, they can be absolutely feasible, accessible, and enjoyable for anyone — even your kids.
I won’t always make the right calls as a parent. Still, I think raising today’s kids to eat in a way that benefits their lifelong health, teaches boundless empathy, and preserves the future of the planet is something we can all get on board with.
Lauren Panoff is a registered dietitian, writer, and speaker who specializes in helping families transition to plant-based lifestyles. She believes awareness, evidence-based information, and humor are three key ingredients for leading a healthy life. Lauren earned her Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition from Colorado State University and her Master of Public Health from Michigan State University.