Vegetarian diets are becoming more popular for adults and children. In Canada, as in other countries, food guidelines now recommend Canadians consume less animal protein and more plant-based proteins, such as legumes and tofu. But less is known about how a vegetarian diet affects children’s growth, development and nutritional status.
“Many parents are choosing vegetarian diets for themselves and their children these days, because of a perceived health benefit,” Jonathon Maguire, lead author of a recent Canadian study about the impact of a vegetarian diet on kids’ development, told TheDoctor.
Maguire and his team found that children consuming a vegetarian diet had similar growth rates and biochemical measures of nutritional status as those who ate meat.
Data from almost 9,000 children enrolled in TARGet Kids!, an ongoing study of children’s health in kids aged six months to eight years old, were collected over an 11-year period. Almost 250 children were following a vegetarian diet — defined for study purposes as a diet that excludes meat — when they enrolled in TARGet Kids!
“Vegetarian diets are fine for most children, the only caveat being that for children who are struggling to achieve adequate growth, you want to be careful about how you do a vegetarian diet.”
Children who followed a vegetarian diet had a similar average body mass index and height as those who ate meat. They also had similar iron, vitamin D and cholesterol levels. However, they were almost twice as likely to be underweight as those who ate meat.
Being underweight is certainly not all bad, but it can be associated with poor nutrition, and may suggest the quality of a child’s diet does not support normal growth, the researchers said. Children who follow vegan and vegetarian diets should have access to healthcare providers who can offer education and monitoring to support growth and adequate nutrition.
“Vegetarian diets are fine for most children, the only caveat being that for children who are struggling to achieve adequate growth, you want to be careful about how you do a vegetarian diet,” explained Maguire, a professor of pediatrics and nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.
More studies examining the quality of children’s vegetarian diets are needed the researchers say; and because TARGet Kids! only followed children until they turned eight years old, future studies could analyze what happens later on. As Maguire put it, “There may be long-term benefits as adolescents and young adults for children who eat vegetarian diets.” Studies looking at growth and nutrition among children who consume a vegan diet, which excludes all animal products including eggs, honey and dairy are also needed.
The study is published in Pediatrics.