According to a new study in the journal Pediatrics, children raised on a vegetarian diet generally consume the same amount of key nutrients as those who eat meat. However, the researchers found that vegetarian children have a slightly higher risk of being underweight, highlighting the need for careful consideration and planning when it comes to feeding children.
“Plant-based diets are recognized as a healthy diet because of increased intake of fruits, vegetables, fiber, whole grains and less saturated fat,” said study author Dr. Jonathon Maguire in a statement. “However, few studies have evaluated the impact of vegetarian diets on children’s growth and nutritional status.”
To investigate, the researchers analyzed data from 8,907 Canadian children, ages six months to eight years, collected between 2008 and 2019. During this period, the popularity of plant-based diets increased significantly as a result of a growing awareness of the health benefits. and environmental issues related to meat consumption.
Blood samples showed that vegetarian children had similar levels of vitamin D, iron and cholesterol to those whose diets included meat. Such a finding came as a surprise to the researchers, as meat is one of the main sources of iron in children’s diets.
At the same time, the data showed that about 6 percent of vegetarian children were classified as underweight, compared to just 3 percent of meat eaters. While this two-fold increase in the risk of developing a low body mass index (BMI) is clearly of concern, Maguire emphasized that “vegetarian diets seem appropriate for most children.” Overall, he says, “children who followed vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical nutritional value compared to children who consumed non-vegetarian diets.”
Interestingly, previous studies have shown that children on a vegetarian diet tend to be taller than carnivorous children, but the herbivorous participants in this analysis were found to be fractionally shorter than their omnivorous counterparts at age three. However, the difference in height between the two groups was too small to be considered clinically significant.
In interpreting these findings, it is important to note that the study authors did not look at the actual content of each child’s diet, making it difficult to draw broad conclusions about the nutritional value of vegetarian eating patterns. Regardless, Maguire explained that a “vegetarian diet was associated with a higher risk of being underweight, underscoring the need for careful nutritional planning for underweight children when considering vegetarian diets.”
Based on these observations, the researchers urge parents and caregivers to seek guidance and education from health care providers before deciding whether to feed their children meat.