Children on vegetarian diets have similar growth and nutrition to meat-eating peers
A St Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto study of nearly 9,000 children has found that those children who eat a vegetarian diet had similar measures of growth and nutrition compared to children who eat meat, lending weight to a growing push towards a plant based diet.
Published in Pediatrics the study also found that children with a vegetarian diet had higher odds of underweight weight status, emphasising the need for special care when planning the diets of vegetarian children.
“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,” lead author Dr Jonathon Maguire said.
Researchers evaluated 8,907 children aged between six months to eight years of age, all of whom were participating in the TARGet Kids! cohort study. Participants were categorised 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 mean body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed meat. The findings showed evidence that children with a vegetarian diet had almost two-fold higher odds of having underweight, which is defined as below the third percentile for BMI. There was no evidence of an association with overweight or obesity.
When children are underweight it is an indicator of undernutrition, and may be a sign that the quality of the child’s diet is not meeting the child’s nutritional needs to support normal growth. For children who eat a vegetarian diet, the researchers emphasised 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.
“Plant-based dietary patterns are recognized as a healthy eating pattern due to increased intake of fruits, vegetables, fiber, whole grains, and reduced saturated fat; however, few studies have evaluated the impact of vegetarian diets on childhood growth and nutritional status. Vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children,” Dr Maguire explained.
Researchers did not assess the quality of the diet of the children in the study, noting that vegetarian diets come in many forms, and that the quality of the individual diet may be quite important to growth and nutritional outcomes.
The authors say 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.
To access the study in full please see here.
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