One of the biggest challenges for busy parents is trying to encourage kids to choose healthy, nutritious foods.

For growing children and teens always on the go, it’s especially important to pack as much nutrition as you can into their diets, says Ruth MacDonald, chair of the department of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.

While you may have heard that trendy plant-based diets are beneficial to our health, that doesn’t mean your family should go meat-free.

Animal-based proteins, including real meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, provide vital micronutrients for children’s health and growth, MacDonald says.

However, if you are still thinking about switching your family to a vegetarian diet, be sure to meet with a dietitian for guidance, MacDonald says.

Vegetarian diets are often lacking in important nutrients, including iron, calcium and vitamin B12, an essential vitamin you can only get from animal-based proteins.

“It’s not something where you just read a magazine article and say, ‘OK, no more meat or eggs in my house.’ You’ve got to know what you are doing,” MacDonald says.

“It would be really dangerous to take your kids, your whole family, on a vegetarian diet if you don’t know what you are doing. You are risking their health. You are risking their bone health. You are risking anemia. And that has huge implications for learning, development and brain health,” she adds.

MacDonald says animal-based proteins provide all the essential amino acids needed for children’s growth and development.

In comparison, plant-based proteins lack one or more of these essential amino acids, she says.

“That’s the real big difference: It’s quality of protein. It’s access to the micronutrients that you get in a very concentrated and efficient way from animal-based products,” MacDonald says.

Specifically, real eggs are a good source of choline, a nutrient that’s essential for brain and nerve development in children and pregnant women, MacDonald adds.

Teenage girls and women of child-bearing age also need iron in their diets to reduce their risk of anemia. Real meat is considered an excellent source of iron.

While you can take iron supplements or consume iron-fortified foods, they are poorly absorbed by the body, MacDonald says.

In addition, pediatricians and dietitians recommend real milk as the most nutritious choice for growing children and teens, MacDonald says.

Real milk is considered a good source of natural calcium that’s easier for our bodies to absorb than the added calcium in fortified plant-based beverages, MacDonald explains.

Children need the natural calcium and other nutrients in milk to aid with bone development, MacDonald says.

Bone mass and density increase rapidly until age 20 and then decline as we get older, she explains. Inadequate bone density puts us at greater risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.

“So (childhood is) a really critical time of life to ensure that you have adequate bone density and bone mass. If you don’t get that during childhood, you never really catch up,” MacDonald says.

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