Vegetarian kids more likely to be underweight, study suggests

  • Vegetarian children do not appear to have growth or nutrient deficiencies compared to their peers, according to a new study.
  • Children on a vegetarian diet had similar levels of nutrients such as iron and vitamin D, the researchers found.
  • However, vegetarians were more likely to be underweight, and diet quality may be an important factor.

Vegetarian children have similar levels of nutrition and growth as their meat-eating peers, but may have almost twice the risk of being underweight, suggests a study published May 2 in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers led by a team from St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto analyzed data from nearly 9,000 Canadian children aged six months to eight years, comparing their diets with their height, weight and nutrition.

They found that the 338 children who had followed vegetarian or vegan diets had similar heights, markers of growth, as the children who ate meat. Contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis, the vegetarians also had comparable levels of nutrients such as iron and

vitamin D

as carnivores did, suggesting that vegetarian children could get enough in their diets without eating meat.

However, vegetarian children were nearly twice as likely as carnivores to be underweight, based on body mass index, or weight-for-height ratio.

Being underweight may indicate a higher risk of malnutrition or a lack of enough calories and nutrients needed for proper growth, according to the authors. However, more research is needed because other lifestyle variables, including physical activity and specific foods in the diet, could play a role in the findings.

The results highlight that careful planning is important when considering how to meet children’s nutritional needs on a vegetarian diet, according to Dr. Jonathon Maguire, the study’s lead author and a pediatrician at Unity Health Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.

“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,” Maguire said in a news release. “Vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children.”

Plant-based diets can vary widely, so quality matters for health outcomes

An important limitation of the study is that it did not assess the quality of vegetarian diets or specific foods, beyond the exclusion of meat.

The healthiness of a vegetarian diet may vary depending on the foods included, evidence suggests. Plant-based diets rich in vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and fruits are linked to better health outcomes. But many highly processed foods are also vegetarian, can be high in sugar, salt, and preservatives, and are linked to health problems.

A small study from 2021 found that vegetarian children who ate more processed plant-based foods had elevated cholesterol and blood sugar levels. They also tended to eat fewer foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains, missing out on important vitamins and nutrients like fiber, according to the researchers.

“We are learning that just eating plant-based diets is no guarantee of health, we still need to select healthy foods,” Dr. Małgorzata Desmond, first author of that study and a researcher at The Children’s Memorial Health Institute, said in a news release. .

More research is also needed on vegan diets, which eliminate meat and other animal products such as dairy, eggs, and honey.

The same 2021 study suggested that vegan children may be at higher risk for deficiencies of minerals and vitamins such as calcium and B vitamins, which can cause lower bone mass and density. However, vegan children are more likely to have healthy cholesterol levels and other markers of good heart health, the data suggested.

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