Doctor’s Tip: Are plant-based diets healthy for kids? Part 2: proteins

This is the second column in a series based on “Nourish, The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families,” by Stanford pediatrician Reshma Shah, MD, MPH, and registered dietitian Brenda Davis. Last week’s column was about carbs and today’s was about protein. Next week’s session will focus on the third and final macronutrient, lipids.

Proteins are complex macronutrients that have multiple functions in the body. They are made up of amino acids, some of which cannot be produced by our body, called essential amino acids, and others which our body can produce. Laypersons have two questions about protein and infant nutrition: 1) Can growing children get enough protein from plants? 2) Is the quality of vegetable protein adequate?


The RDA (recommended daily allowance) of protein for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram (1 kg = 2.2 pounds), which translates to 46 grams per day for the average American woman and 56 grams for the average man. However, in the following situations, additional protein is needed: growing infants, children and adolescents; pregnancy; and breastfeeding. For example, growing infants need almost twice as much protein per pound as adults.

Here is a comparison of the protein content of a few common foods: 3 ounces of beef or chicken, 25 grams of protein; 1 egg, 6 grams; ½ cup firm tofu, 22 grams; 1 veggie burger patty, 11 grams; 1 ounce of hemp seeds, 10 grams; 12 ounces of almonds, 6 grams; ½ cup of beans or lentils, 7-9 grams.

One issue with protein foods is digestibility. Fiber – a carbohydrate – is not digested and feeds bacteria in the gut microbiome. With fiber and protein rich foods like legumes, up to 10% of protein is lost in the stool. Although children need to eat fiber for a healthy gut microbiome, it’s important that they also eat plant foods high in highly digestible protein, such as tofu, soy milk, plant-based “meats,” and butter. of nuts. If the cell walls are removed, as happens, for example, when soy is made into tofu, protein digestibility is about the same as that of meat.

“Nourish” notes that “a recent study reported protein intakes in exclusive plant eaters (vegans) ranging from 62 to 82 grams of protein per day – well above the RDA.” Studies of vegetarian and vegan children show that they exceed the RDA for protein and have normal growth and development compared to omnivorous children.

Eating too much protein is problematic. Several studies have shown that a high protein intake is associated with abnormally rapid growth, overweight and obesity. Shah and Davis note that “children in Western countries receive two to four times more protein than they need”. For this reason, protein powders are not recommended, and they often contain environmental contaminants, sweeteners, fillers, preservatives, and thickeners.


In the 1970s, there was a theory that not all plant foods contain the nine essential amino acids that the body cannot make. This was proven wrong in the 1980s – all plant foods were shown to contain all nine essential amino acids.

What about the health benefits of plant protein over animal protein? Shah and Davis note that “vegetable protein significantly reduces mortality and risk of chronic disease [for example obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, chronic kidney disease] when it replaces meat.


Don’t make it too complicated (don’t eat your meals with a calculator!). As Shah and Davis say in their book, “If we stick to the recommended protein intakes and eat a reasonable mix of plant foods throughout the day, individual protein and amino acid needs will be…easily met.” For more information, read “Feeding,” which has specific suggestions on how to ensure an adequate amount of protein for children on a plant-based or plant-only diet.

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with a special interest in the prevention and reversal of disease through nutrition. Free services offered by the Center for Prevention and the People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shopping with a doctor at the Carbondale City Market, and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment or email [email protected].

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