Emerging Issues for Student Health Education

A Primer on Plant-Based Nutrition

Environmental health, animal welfare, cost-savings, increased energy, weight management, and radiant skin are just a few reasons that individuals from various cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and age groups are pursuing a plant-based lifestyle. And students are no exception. As plant-based nutrition continues to grow in popularity, schools will have many opportunities to support and educate students (and the community) about the health benefits and potential challenges of plant-based eating.

What is a plant-based diet? A plant-based diet consists primarily of foods that are high in fiber and phytonutrients – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, legumes, and oils. However, individuals who focus on plant-based eating may occasionally consume meat and dairy products, which makes plant-based diet different from a vegetarian or vegan regimen.

A plant-based diet has many health benefits. In addition to being linked to improved neurological function, an important factor in student learning and achievement, plant-based diets carry lower risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

But despite its benefits, a plant-based diet has potential challenges. Some of those challenges include risk of low protein, vitamin, and mineral intake. For example, low amounts of vitamin D and calcium can increase risk of fractures due to bone demineralization. This type of deficiency has serious implications for students playing sports and other physical activities. Dark leafy green vegetables and milk alternatives such as almond, soy, or rice can help replenish the daily requirement of vitamin D and calcium; while beans, lentils, and soy products can help make up for protein deficiencies.

School-wide events, extracurricular activities, lesson plans, and staff training are just a few ways that schools can support students pursuing a plant-based lifestyle while encouraging others to increase their plant-based nutrition. Regular school-wide events that focus on plant-based eating (e.g., Meatless Mondays) are great ways to introduce students to new and healthy meal options. Afterschool programs or parent engagement activities are another way schools can raise awareness of plant-based nutrition. Lesson plans focused on plant-based eating can be integrated into health education and other curricula. Finally, schools can provide education and training for food service staff on how to prepare nutritious, plant-based recipes.

How does raising awareness of plant-based nutrition in schools modify the previous nutritional guidance given to students? Studies show that students are not consuming the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. By focusing on plant-based eating and its benefits, schools can reinforce nutritional guidelines and encourage students to make healthier choices.

Whether a student wants to improve the environment, enhance their physical appearance, increase their energy, or become an animal welfare advocate, they will need proper education and support to get the maximum benefits of a plant-based diet. Creating a diet that is both flexible and tailored to meet their individual needs is key to a successful plant-based lifestyle.