Children on a vegetarian diet have similar growth and nutrition compared to their meat-eating peers

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A new research study finds that children on a vegetarian diet have similar growth and nutrition compared to children who eat meat.

However, children on a vegetarian diet were more likely to be underweight.

A study of nearly 9,000 children revealed that those eating a vegetarian diet had similar measures of growth and nutrition compared to children who ate meat. The research also found that children on a vegetarian diet were more likely to be underweight, emphasizing the need for special care when planning vegetarian children’s diets. The study was published on May 2, 2022 in the journal Pediatrics and led by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto.

The findings come as the shift to eating a plant-based diet accelerates in Canada. In 2019, updates to Canada’s Food Guide urged Canadians to adopt plant-based proteins, such as beans, nuts and tofu, instead of meat.

jonathan maguire

Dr. Jonathon Maguire, a pediatrician at Unity Health Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital and a scientist at the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital. Credit: Unity Health Toronto

“Over the past 20 years, we have seen a growing popularity of plant-based diets and a changing food environment with more access to plant-based alternatives, yet we have not seen research on nutritional outcomes for children following vegetarian diets. in Canada,” he said. Dr. Jonathon Maguire, the study’s lead author and a pediatrician at Unity Health Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.

“This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets. A vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of being underweight, underscoring the need for careful dietary planning for underweight children when considering vegetarian diets.”

The researchers evaluated 8,907 children ages six months to eight years. The children were all participants of TARGet Kids! The cohort study and data were collected between 2008 and 2019. Participants were classified by vegetarian status, defined as a dietary pattern that excludes meat, or non-vegetarian status.

The researchers found that children who ate a vegetarian diet had body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels similar to those who ate meat. The findings showed evidence that children on a vegetarian diet were nearly twice as likely to be underweight, defined as below the third percentile for BMI. There was no evidence of an association with overweight or obesity.

Being underweight is an indicator of malnutrition 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 emphasized access to health care providers who can provide growth monitoring, education and guidance to support their growth and nutrition.

International guidelines on the vegetarian diet in infancy and childhood have differing recommendations, and previous studies evaluating the relationship between a vegetarian diet and growth and nutritional status in childhood have yielded conflicting results.

“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 the growth and nutritional status of children. Vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children,” said Dr. Maguire, who is also a scientist at the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital.

One limitation of the study is that the researchers did not assess the quality of the vegetarian diets. The researchers point out that vegetarian diets come in many forms and the quality of the individual diet can be very important for growth and nutritional outcomes. The authors say more research is needed to examine the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood, as well as growth and nutritional outcomes among children following a vegan diet, which excludes meat and animal products such as dairy. , eggs and honey.

Reference: “Vegetarian Diet, Growth, and Nutrition in Early Childhood: A Longitudinal Cohort Study” by Laura J. Elliott, RD, MSc; Charles DG Keown-Stoneman, PhD; Catherine S. Birken, MD, MSc, FRCPC; David JA Jenkins, MD, PhD, DSc, FRSC, FRCP, FRCPC; Cornelia M. Borkhoff, Master of Science, Ph.D.; Jonathon L. Maguire, MD, MSc, FRCPC on behalf of TARGet KIDS! COLLABORATION, May 2, 2022, Pediatrics.
DOI: 10.1542/ped.2021-052598

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and the SickKids Foundation.

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