Good nutrition is important throughout our lives, but for children, healthy eating is particularly crucial for proper growth and development. While some parents may be wary of vegetarian diets when it comes to providing children with the nourishment they need, a new study from St Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health and the University of Toronto has found that vegetarian children have similar growth and nutrition as children who eat meat.
The study was led by Jonathon Maguire, a paediatrician at St Michael’s Hospital, and published in Pediatrics.
Plant-based diets are increasingly popular in Canada, and have become even more widespread during the pandemic. Yet vegetarian products remain difficult to market, and some parents are still skeptical about whether vegetarian diets are appropriate for their children.
“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,” Maguire said in a press release.
“[H]owever we have not seen research into the nutritional outcomes of children following vegetarian diets in Canada.”
To investigate, Maguire and colleagues carried out a multi-year study of nearly 9,000 Canadian children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years. The children were studied through the TARGet Kids! program, which is a collaboration between primary care physicians, teachers, and parents.
Using data that had been collected over the course of a decade, the researchers compared the health and nutrition of children who followed vegetarian diets and those who didn’t. Specifically, they compared the children’s body mass indices (BMIs) and heights, as well as their levels of iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol.
The authors mention that the predominant sources of iron and vitamin D in most children’s diets are meat and cow’s milk, which is why they chose to look at these specific tracers. Vitamin D is also commonly found in fatty fish. Both iron and vitamin D are important for proper growth and development in children.
Cholesterol helps the body produce vitamin D, which is why it made for another good tracer of children’s nutrition.
The team found that children who followed vegetarian diets had similar growth and nutrition measures as those who ate meat. In other words, both groups of children had similar BMIs, heights, and levels of iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol.
However, the researchers also found that vegetarian children had higher odds of being underweight than non-vegetarian children.
While this doesn’t necessarily mean that vegetarian diets aren’t healthy for children, it does highlight an area that parents should keep an eye on. Vegetarian children may need bigger portions than parents who are used to meat-based diets might expect, but vegetarian food does appear to provide the nutrition children need.
“Plant-based dietary patterns are recognized as a healthy eating pattern due to increased intake of fruits, vegetables, fibre, whole grains, and reduced saturated fat,” Maguire concluded.
“Vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children.”
The researchers recommend that parents of vegetarian children regularly consult with a family doctor or nutritionist. This can help them keep track of whether their children are at risk for becoming underweight.
The team also hopes that their findings will help parents of vegetarian children feel more secure that their children’s nutritional needs are being met.