Jessica Spiro, RD is a plant-based registered dietitian based in San Diego, California. In addition to having her own practice where she specializes in vegan and vegetarian nutrition for families, Jessica also has a blog and makes regular appearances on the San Diego local morning TV news. Jessica’s goal with her business is to help parents raise plant-based kids with confidence!
Mathea Ford: [00:00:27] Hi there! It’s Mathea. Welcome back to the Nutrition Experts Podcast. The podcast featuring nutrition experts who are leading the way using food starts today right now with our next guest. It’s great to have Jessica Spiro on the show today. Jessica welcome to Nutrition Experts.
Jessica Spiro: [00:00:44] Thank you so much for having me on your show.
Mathea Ford: [00:00:46] I’m excited to have you on the show and share your expertise with my tribe. So, Jessica let’s start out with letting you tell my listeners a little more about you and what you do.
Jessica Spiro: [00:00:57] Yes. So, I’m a registered dietitian I’m based in San Diego and I specialize in the organ and vegetarian nutrition for kids. So, plant based diets for children. And I decided to go into this specific area because of my own personal experience. So I had a daughter two years ago and she was basically mostly vegetarian since probably I was 12 years old. And then when she started eating I found out she was allergic to milk and eggs. So, I started to research more and more about diets mainly because I was trying to look up recipes and also make sure that she was getting her adequate nutrition and calcium and all of that. And I was one learning more about veganism and the ethical aspects of that really resonated with me. And in addition I also found that there was a big gap in information. So there’s really not much information pertaining to specific nutritional needs for vegan children in particular. And so I felt that being a Registered Dietitian and also having my own personal experience trying to look for that information I decided to go into that area.
Mathea Ford: [00:02:12] You talked to… You said mentioned the ethical aspects of vegetarian vegan foods. What would be some examples of that?
Jessica Spiro: [00:02:21] So, in terms of you know a plant based diet. Plant based diet is really where you’re incorporating more fruits and vegetable, you’re eating predominantly plant based sources of proteins etc. Veganism is it encompasses the ethical aspects including you know just your everyday living including you know not buying leather products and things like that. So, vegans omit any type of animal products. So, dairy, eggs, you know things like honey for example. Their specific nutrient needs that you know we need to pay extra attention to especially if we’re raising vegan children.
Mathea Ford: [00:03:01] So, the ethical side is really just not using animal products? Is that what you’re saying?
Jessica Spiro: [00:03:06] Yes!
Mathea Ford: [00:03:07] Okay. So, would you say that children that you work with seem to find that extra value or they’re inspired by that or is it something that is different for kids?
Jessica Spiro: [00:03:19] You know interestingly enough I thought it was going to be a lot of parents coming to me because they decided to go vegan and wanted to get their family on board. But actually it’s been a lot of times that I’ll have moms reach out to me because their child wants to go vegan. They were impacted by a story that they heard and so their families want to support them and their believe somewhat of course make sure that they’re providing them adequate nutrition.
Mathea Ford: [00:03:48] What age typically are you working with kids when they’re kind of making these choices?
Jessica Spiro: [00:03:54] If parents aren’t already raising them from a young age it’s usually pre-teen teenagers that I find I don’t know. That’s like you know the statistics of course but that’s just generally what I’ve seen in my practice.
Mathea Ford: [00:04:07] So, let’s talk for a minute because you specialize in plant based nutrition for kids. Can you talk about what is Plant Based Nutrition? Is it the same as a vegetarian diet? And as a vegetarian the same as vegan? Or is plant based nutrition… Which one is how are they different?
Jessica Spiro: [00:04:26] Yes. So plant based there is no legal definition for plant based. But most people assume it to mean a diet where the majority of your nutrition is coming from plants. So, you know I love the type the label plant based but really it’s actually what dietitians have been recommending since for forever really where we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains. And perhaps a little too you know or maybe less on the you know processed meats things like that. So, eating more fruits and vegetables and more grains is probably you know at the epicenter of the diets. And then veganism takes it another step because it encompasses more of the ethical aspects that I was talked about before. So you know vegans don’t necessarily have to be plant based so there is a vegan alternatives to almost every type of food. And it doesn’t of course doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy. So, you know you can do vegan nuggets for example you can do vegan macaroni and cheese. So, veganism is about the the ethical component. The animal welfare as well as environmental impact of our eating habits and plant based is more focused on the diet and the health aspects of it. And of course people can be both. You know a combination and vegetarianism there’s different components of vegetarian. So vegetarians typically eats. Lacto-Ovo eats milk and eggs and Pescaterian include fish in their diets. And then of course there’s varying degrees and of each people might not be all vegan they might be mostly vegan or you know things like that so. But those are pretty much the definitions.
Mathea Ford: [00:06:12] So, plant based doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not eating meat. It just means that the majority of your food 80-90 percent is plant based and you may have some meat products or other chicken that type of stuff every now and then?
Jessica Spiro: [00:06:26] Exactly!
Mathea Ford: [00:06:28] Okay. What type of meat substitutes do vegans usually eat or you know to get. I’m guessing protein and other components that we typically get out of meat?
Jessica Spiro: [00:06:39] So in terms of like if you look at the vegan alternatives that you can buy sort of more processed versions that they’re going to typically be soy that’s the most common one that you’ll see. But in terms of finding vegan replacements to protein so. Well, first you know all plant foods do have protein. You know whole grains have protein and pasta has protein. All those foods do have varying degrees of protein but typically a protein replacement on your plate for example would look like more like beans for example tofu, even nuts and seeds. So a lot of people make and I did this at home to a I make my own vegan cheese using soaked cashews, a little bit of nutritional yeast and so there’s ways that you can kind of give that cheesiness without necessarily having to buy one at the grocery store an alternative. So, typically the replacements are going to be those proteins and those types are legumes and nuts seeds things like that.
Mathea Ford: [00:07:42] So, I’ve heard of nutritional yeast but I have no idea what it is or how you would use it or how it enhances food. So can you talk about nutritional yeast?
Jessica Spiro: [00:07:51] Nutritional yeast has a little bit of a cheesy flavor so it’s a really great way to add a little bit of that flavor to foods especially when you’re trying to get things more palatable for children but it’s also a fortified source of B12 which we know in a vegan diets it’s the number one nutrient that vegans need to supplement in their diet because you cannot get B12 in your diet other than through meat or meat products or animal products rather.
Mathea Ford: [00:08:26] So, what exactly is nutritional yeast? Is it like a yeast or?
Jessica Spiro: [00:08:30] Yes exactly! It comes in flake form. So and a lot of people don’t really like this. So it’s a divide it’s almost like cilantro. I find that 50 percent of people really like it and 50 percent of people can’t stand it. So I hear a lot about it of course in vegan diet but it’s not a necessity. You don’t have to be vegan. You don’t necessarily have to have nutritional yeast but it’s just an easy way to add a little bit of that that cheesy flavor to sauces and things like that.
Mathea Ford: [00:08:56] Interesting. So, you just put it in kind of a little bit and…
Jessica Spiro: [00:09:00] Yeah! You mix it in sauces. Some people just top it. Just do sprinkle some on the tapping a pasta or any other kinds of dip. You can really just… There’s if you go online there’s tons of recipes that where you can you can use it. And again it’s a really great way to make sure you’re fortifying your diet with B12.
Mathea Ford: [00:09:20] What are the risks for kids being raised on a plant based diet or a vegetarian diet? Are there certain nutrients they need to supplement? Are there certain things that they do differently versus an adult?
Jessica Spiro: [00:09:32] There’s definitely a lot of benefits of eating a plant based diet. People that follow plant based diet have lower incidences of cancer, heart disease and lower BMI is overall so. But there are some concerns. There are some nutritional nutrients that vegans do need to pay attention to. B12 as I mentioned is the number one because it can’t met with the diet. So, actually interestingly enough B12 is a bacteria. In the past we we got it through our diet because we didn’t have no clean water, we ate food maybe from the ground. And thank goodness we now have clean water so we cannot get it through our diets that means we do have to have it fortified. Animals get it through eating you know from the ground or wherever. So, that’s when we in turn get it from the animals so people that follow a vegan diet do need to supplement. And this is really key for children especially so. Especially if you’re starting them off on a vegan diet at young ages can B12 stores last in our bodies are about five to seven years so someone to an adult who may have gone bigger vegan later on in life. It’s really important not to have a kind of a casual attitude about B12. B12 Deficiency does exist and people who follow vegan diet and so it’s really important to supplement and for children who might not have had developed those stores deficiency can happen very quickly and those deficiency can lead to issues with your nerves, cognitive function etc. It’s an incredibly important nutrient to get in your diet. You can get it through fortified foods. So, cereals, plant based milks not all of them so you definitely check the labels but they’ll typically have B12. They’ll be fortified with B12. That’s not a reliable source because you know with children especially it’s hard you know they don’t always eat their full bowl of oatmeal they don’t always drink that glass of milk, might go to have a drink in the whole day. So, it’s important to supplement and I recommend people you know work with their doctor, dietitian to find out you know how much do supplements or you can go to the you know look up where the dietary references to the idea arise for those nutrients and make sure you’re supplementing.
Mathea Ford: [00:11:52] So, are there any other nutrients you’d ever worry about iron or vitamin D or anything like that?
Jessica Spiro: [00:11:58] Yes. So iron and vitamin D are nutrients that really we should know that vegetarians, vegans and people to follow you know just regular omni diets as they call them. They are all iron is a nutrients that we can typically be lacking in all of our diets. So, vegans they’re not getting the heme iron so it’s recommended heme iron that’s found in beef for example is considered to be better absorbed than non heme iron found in beans. So, it is generally recommended to have about double the iron and that’s pretty easy to get in a vegan diet. It’s well planned. So a cup of beans for example is going to have about six to seven milligrams of iron and that’s actually almost double the amount that you’re going to find in a three ounce serving of beef. So, you can get a lot of iron through the diet if you make sure to have beans in your food. Also tofu also has iron. So those are some easy ways to get iron in the diet. And as for vitamin D we know as a sunshine vitamin is a hormone that you know now that we want to make sure that we have proper sunscreen or if you’re living in colder climates of course we can all be deficient in vitamin D. It’s fortified in milk – in cows milk. So that’s how most kids are getting their vitamin D. So, likewise it’s also fortified in a lot of plant milks as well. So that’s some ways that you can you can get vitamin D make sure that you’re getting adequate amounts.
Mathea Ford: [00:13:40] Okay. Great! I know that the AND American Nutrition Dietetics group and they have a position statement on the appropriateness of a vegan or vegetarian diet and they say it’s appropriate for all ages. So, what reasons do you parents you mentioned that parents often bring their kids because they’ve the kids have decided they want to be vegan but what reasons do parents have for wanting to do like a plant based diet with their kids?
Jessica Spiro: [00:14:11] So, yes. I’m glad you mentioned the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics their statement their position statement on begin vegetarian diets. They said that it’s safe for all stages of life from infancy pregnancy breastfeeding. Of course they added you know added a key element to that physician statement as well planned. So, a well planned vegan and a vegetarian diet are safe and they’re not.. And they said they’re not it’s not only safe and adequate it also help has a lot of health benefits as well in reducing the occurrence of chronic diseases. So in terms of parents deciding to go more plant based you hear about a lot more. There’s a lot more research that’s coming out on plant based diet. So, you know I’d love to reference the particular study or group of studies that they did on the Seventh Day Adventist. It’s a really one of the most cited studies for people that follow vegan and vegetarian or plant based diet. And it’s actually one of the largest studies looking into the health benefits of plant based diets. And basically that there’s a large concentration of Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California where people follow healthy vegan and vegetarian diet for religious reasons. It was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the last one had over 90. They looked at over ninety five thousand people and over a period of time. And what they found was there was significant health benefits of following those diets including for example a 70 percent reduction in lung cancer even compared to nonsmokers eating the standard American diet. They also found that the Adventists who eat legumes at least a couple of times a week had about a 30 to 40 percent reduction in colon cancer. And women also had reduced rates of ovarian cancer. So, we’re getting a lot more research and a lot more understanding of the health benefits of following a plant based diet so typical standard American diet is maybe one we think of where it’s heavy on the meats and you know there’s more processed foods so incorporating more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains that has so many health benefits and we’re really seeing the research coming out supporting that particular diet.
Mathea Ford: [00:16:29] Well, and Oreos are vegetarian right?
Jessica Spiro: [00:16:31] Exactly! That’s why the plant based is a really nice term because it makes sure it also incorporates that health aspect to make sure that it’s not just the substitution of for example Dino chicken nuggets to your vegan chicken nuggets they’re both going to be processed foods that of course as parents are busy it’s not bad to include on occasion but being a staple in the diet. When to look at incorporating more whole foods.
Mathea Ford: [00:17:00] So, can you talk a little more about the word the term that you used of well planned?
Jessica Spiro: [00:17:06] So, well planned diet we want to include variety in a plant based diet. So for example zinc is a nutrient where another nutrient where we want to make sure we’re getting on a vegan diet because it is lower levels in plant based foods. So if you’re including a variety of foods it’s going to be much easier to make sure you’re meeting your nutrient needs. You don’t want to just think about if you’re starting to go plant based or go vegan, you want to make sure you’re not just taking away certain foods you don’t want to just take away milk and just take away meat and not consider how you’re going to make up for those nutrients. So for example calcium is incredibly important for growing children. Children as young as toddlers they need about 700 milligrams and when you get into teens they’re going to need almost as much or they’re going to need actually as much or even more calcium or they can have more of the calcium requirements than many adults. So, of course they you know toddlers are going to eat a lot less.
Jessica Spiro: [00:18:05] So, just relying on broccoli for your calcium source for example isn’t going to be sufficient enough so a couple of broccoli has about 60 milligrams of calcium. Want to make sure that we’re getting good sources of calcium into our children’s diets. Get that again from tofu or fortified soy milk. It’s going to be a great way. So it’s definitely not study hard to do it but you just want to take those nutrients into consideration and make sure you’re planning your children’s diet appropriately.
Mathea Ford: [00:18:36] So, as a vegetarian. Are people still worried about the whole complete versus incomplete protein? Or do they need to worry about mixing red beans and rice for example? Or is there another way that you go about looking at the sources of of nutrients?
Jessica Spiro: [00:18:53] That’s a great question. So luckily they found that you don’t need to pair those. Specifically, so basically you know proteins are made up of essential amino amino acids essential, not essential. And basically we want to so that came about that if a particular food is low and one of those essential amino acids like or one of the amino acids like methionine and that you want to you know do beans and rice together to make sure that it forms the complete protein but you actually don’t have to do that at the same meal they did bunks that I believe what I had heard that it came about in a book and then 50s I’m not quite certain on this but and then it’s sort of became a standard recommendation for vegetarian diet but luckily they’ve gone back on that and found there really wasn’t evidence to support that you don’t have to include you don’t have to pair them but you know what? I think that by the making sure planning of a meal it kind of just happens naturally so typically you’re going to be doing beans with some type of grain because you know you’re not really just going to be eating a bowl of beans anyway. So, I think it sort of happens naturally but you don’t have to do it at a specific meal.
Mathea Ford: [00:20:02] I think it’s good to know that. Yeah like you said you can mix proteins but you don’t. That’s not part of the whole plan you have to do. Why do you find that kids are usually like enthusiastic or interested in starting the style?
Jessica Spiro: [00:20:18] I think it depends for a variety of reasons but the one that I see most often is the ethical aspect of it. It’s the animal welfare I think you know people learn about. A little bit more about factory farming and I find that you know for some reason at that age you know like I was talking before that adolescent age I do hear a lot more. I have a lot more families coming to me just telling me that their children have decided to go that route. It’s funny because that was my story too. That’s how I became vegetarian when I was 13. So that’s really the main reason. And then for families like maybe the parents have decided to go more plant based or even perhaps they saw this is obviously more common now with with the influx of documentaries that have come out of a lot of families coming to me and wanting to go that route and I think that the most important thing is a lot of people want to just change overnight and I think that you know if you’re an individual that might work. But I think especially when you’re involving your families it’s important to do it maybe more gradually. So, focusing more on what foods that you can add or what dishes that you can add to your diet as opposed to what you’re just gonna be taking out so that’s kind of how I ended up going to more vegan route was adding in slowly into my diet you know with my daughter when I found out she’s allergic to eggs and milk. She was about 7-8 months old so I was in a rush to make these changes. So, I did it slowly and found there’s so many different recipes that are really delicious. It was actually funny because I remember that before I was mostly vegan that you know anytime a recipe turns battle I would do is just throw a bunch of cheese on it and instantly it was good. So I had to learn some strategies to cooking more plant based. I think that it does take time so I think that people need to be you know kind with themselves and you know especially when they’re thinking about kindness to the animals and the environment so we also have kindness towards ourselves and you know maybe doing things gradually like I said and getting the kids involved in the process like cooking and picking out ingredients. You know getting kids to eat plant based or even fruits and veg or maybe not fruits and vegetables has been you know a struggle of parents for a very long time. So, I think oftentimes when I’m working with parents you know if they’re very concerned about the nutritional aspect. Oftentimes, I’m focusing especially on my young children on preventing picky eating and helping them work with their children to eat more variety. So, it’s really of course great to have this well planned vegan diet but it was a vegetarian diet or any kind of diet for that matter that’s healthy. But if they won’t eat it then you know it doesn’t matter. So, it’s just you know it’s a process with kids regardless of their diet to eat more vegetables and eat more whole grains. So, oftentimes in a session or know appointments with clients I’m referring a lot to the Ellyn Satter website and talk about a lot about the division of responsibilty and which is if people aren’t familiar with it it’s basically you know parents deciding what foods to offer, when and where and children decide how much. So it helps make meal times a lot less stressful. You know you want to make sure you’re giving something to your tribe they’re going to eat and then allow allowing them to get more exposed to different types of vegetables and whole grains. And it’s a process. So you know I think that that’s where sometimes a supplement for can come in handy. But of course you know like I said when I say talk to your doctor, dietitian because it’s well we want to make sure we’re focusing on getting adequate nutrition. We also want to build a healthy relationship to food. We also want to take the stress out of meal times because any parent knows it’s just it can be a challenge to get your child to eat particular foods like I said again no matter what type of diet you’re following.
Mathea Ford: [00:24:32] Yeah! That makes a lot of sense. So, you didn’t we haven’t said anything about like organic or non GMO. Is there anything of that that goes into the plant based or vegetarian diet or are they two completely different topics?
Jessica Spiro: [00:24:47] So, I think that they are that is really a choice that I think it’s up to the family. I don’t think that there’s sufficient evidence on either side to make a wide claim on whether to include more organic or not include organic. The goal is really to include more fruits and vegetables organic or not so organic food can be especially in particular seasons or in particular areas can be so much more expensive and you don’t want to not eat fruits and vegetables because it’s not organic. So, I try as much as possible to not go into that of course I get asked about that. So I really emphasize that benefits of eating fruits and vegetables that are non organic are going to… There’s just not sufficient evidence for avoiding non organic foods so. And same thing with GMOs. So, I know actually this is something where I do see frequently in the vegan community because a lot of people are concerned about soy because most times so it can be genetically modified. So, I tried to help dispel some of the myths about GMOs. And of course we’re still learning more about it so it’s hard to make a you know a recommendation based on the current research. So you know I think it’s a personal choice you can easily avoid GMO soy by choosing organic soy or tofu. But I think that that’s really a personal and family decision. But I do try to help dispel some of the myths and or not even assert some of the myths but some of the fear around those foods are those or you know topics.
Mathea Ford: [00:26:22] Yeah. I think you make an excellent point. It’s more value more important to get the fruits and vegetables vs. like you said if you can afford the organic to just not eat them. That’s not as healthy as eating the one that may be non or may not be organic but still is a fruit and vegetable that you’re getting in your diet.
Jessica Spiro: [00:26:43] Exactly! And you know I’m actually very happy to see that there’s a lot of dietitians now specializing in this area for Vegan Nutrition and plant based nutrition because it’s a growing growing area for dietitians and I think it’s really needed. Like I said when I was trying to find it was vegetarian. And then more vegan because of my daughter’s allergies and I was just really surprised by how little information there was out there so I’m so glad there’s more dietitians entering this area because I think that a lot of people that make for example an ethical choice to go vegan they’re turning to perhaps more you know some of those quote unquote nutrition experts that may not have degrees and you’ll see a lot I feel like I see a lot more myths in these circles. I’m a part of a lot of different online communities for vegan parenting and sort of just kind of listen in and see what you know people are saying. And so I think that not having information out there so I’m just really glad that there’s more dietitians entering this arena of plant based nutrition so that people on parents can get the correct and credible information.
Mathea Ford: [00:27:54] So, thinking about the kids that you work with what are some foods that kids really like that almost surprises you that you’re like “I didn’t think kids would like that?”
Jessica Spiro: [00:28:06] Beans. I’m Really surprised how many children do really like beans. And it really makes sense me even from a young age. Beans are really soft so it’s easy to eat. Then you can just do so many things with beans. You can make veggie burgers, you know you can just do such a wide variety of things. I mean this is a dessert but it’s still finding like black bean brownies. Different recipes that you can make with beans but I’m surprised how well kids take to take the different legumes.
Mathea Ford: [00:28:34] Yeah! My kids really like because they are not vegan ham and bean soup. But I was a little surprised by that too because I was like “really?”.
Jessica Spiro: [00:28:43] Yeah. I know kids are actually very surprising sometimes with the foods they like.
Mathea Ford: [00:28:48] What would be your words of advice to how to use this information we’ve talked about in their day to day life?
Jessica Spiro: [00:28:54] The key thing is really that know parents, most parents really want to do what’s best for the children. I think that a lot of parents you know are because there’s doctors, dietitians we’re maybe not trained so much weight on the Vegan Nutrition so because maybe if we don’t have the knowledge for it we get concerned about it. So I think it’s met with sometimes with resistance or people feel like it’s not with resistance in the medical community so I think it’s really important to listen to parents and then just help meet them where they are. So, I think that where it when the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics came out with a position statement I think that that was really helpful and I think that that was gave all things a lot of dietitians a much more confidence in working with vegan families to know that it is an appropriate diet. I think with children of course and and rightfully so we get very concerned because we want to make sure that they’re getting proper nutrition. So, I think knowing that’s a like a set of well planned vegan or vegetarian diet is adequate. Not only adequate but it does have a lot of benefits but it’s important to be educated make sure that they’re getting getting their adequate nutrition.
Mathea Ford: [00:30:09] So, really just not assuming that it’s not a good thing for kids but really trying to find out how we can support that decision.
Jessica Spiro: [00:30:19] Exactly!
Mathea Ford: [00:30:20] Great! So, Jessica, my question I ask everybody is what is your favorite food?
Jessica Spiro: [00:30:26] So, I know I talk a lot about beans. There’s many other plant based proteins out there but I do love lentils. I just. They’re easy to make. They don’t have to do any soaking. And my daughter loves them so I would say lentils are my favorite, my favorite food.
Mathea Ford: [00:30:43] All right! I didn’t know you didn’t have to soak beans.
Jessica Spiro: [00:30:47] Yes, lentils are that one of the only ones you don’t have. We do not have to soak you just took at 20 minutes and then good.
Mathea Ford: [00:30:53] That’s a good tip there. Okay. Jessica, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. It was a pleasure to have you on the show. I know my listeners have learned a lot about the different aspects of vegetarianism, vegans especially for kids. So, if listeners want to connect with you what’s the best way to do that?
Jessica Spiro: [00:31:11] So, my website is JessicaSpiroRD.comnd then I’m also on Instagram, Facebook. @JessicaSpiroRD.
Mathea Ford: [00:31:20] Great! So, guys this has been another great episode of the Nutrition Experts Podcast. The podcast that is all about learning more so you can do more with nutrition in your life.
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