A new study has revealed that children who eat vegetarian diets have 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, also found that children with a vegetarian diet were more likely to be underweight, emphasizing the need for careful planning of childhood nutrition.
The findings come as uptake of plant-based diets is on the rise in Canada. In 2019, updates to Canada’s Food Guide promoted 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.
“This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets. Vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of underweight weight status, underscoring the need for careful dietary planning for children with underweight when considering vegetarian diets.”
The researchers evaluated roughly 9,000 children as young as six months old who participated in the TARGet Kids! cohort study. The quality of the vegetarian diet was not considered in the assessment.
The experts found that children who ate a vegetarian diet had similar mean body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed meat. Among vegetarian participants, there were increased odds of being underweight, below the third percentile for BMI, and no association of obesity.
Underweight is an indicator of undernutrition, which can happen when the quality of a child’s diet is not meeting nutritional needs to support growth. For children who eat a vegetarian diet, access to healthcare providers is key to ensuring that growth is monitored and children receive education and guidance to support their growth and nutrition.
International guidelines have differing recommendations when it comes to childhood vegetarian diets. Past studies that have evaluated vegetarian diet, 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,” said Dr. Maguire, who is also a scientist at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital.
The researchers believe that further research is needed to understand the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood, and to understand how childhood growth and nutrition is further impacted by a vegan diet, which excludes meat and animal derived products such as dairy, egg, and honey.
The study was published in the journal Pediatrics and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and SickKids Foundation.