A study of nearly 9,000 children found those who eat a vegetarian diet had similar measures of growth and nutrition compared to children who eat meat. The study, led by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto, also found that children with a vegetarian diet had higher odds of underweight weight status, emphasizing the need for special care when planning the diets of vegetarian kids.
The findings come as a shift to consuming a plant-based diet grows in Canada. In 2019, updates to Canada’s Food Guide urged Canadians to embrace plant-based proteins, such as beans and tofu, instead of meat.
“Over the last 20 years we have seen growing popularity of plant-based diets and a changing food environment with more access to plant-based alternatives, however we have not seen research into the nutritional outcomes of children following vegetarian diets in Canada,” said Dr. Jonathon Maguire, lead author of the study and a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto.
“This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets.”
About the study
Researchers evaluated 8,907 children ages six months to eight years. The children were all participants of the TARGet Kids! cohort study and data was collected between 2008 and 2019. Participants were categorized by vegetarian status – defined as a dietary pattern that excludes meat – or non-vegetarian status.
Researchers found children who had a vegetarian diet had similar body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D and cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed meat.
Higher risk of underweight
The findings indicated that kids with a vegetarian diet had almost a two-fold higher risk of being underweight, defined as below the third percentile for BMI. There was no evidence of an association with overweight or obesity.
Underweight is an indicator of undernutrition and may be a sign that the quality of a child’s diet is not meeting the child’s nutritional needs to support normal growth. For children who eat a vegetarian diet, the researchers emphasized access to healthcare providers who can provide growth monitoring, education and guidance to support their growth and nutrition.
International guidelines about vegetarian diet in infancy and childhood have differing recommendations, and past studies that have evaluated the relationship between vegetarian diet and childhood growth and nutritional status have had conflicting findings.
While few studies have evaluated the impact of vegetarian diets on childhood growth and nutritional status, vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children.
A limitation of the study is that researchers did not assess the quality of the vegetarian diets. Vegetarian diets come in many forms and the quality of the diet may be very important to growth and nutritional outcomes.
Further research is needed to examine the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood, as well as growth and nutrition outcomes among children following a vegan diet, which excludes meat and animal derived products such as dairy, egg and honey.
Source: Pediatrics, May 2, 2022.
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