Vegetarian and meat-eating children have similar growth and nutrition, but no weight, study finds

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

The authors used data from nearly 9,000 children aged 6 months to 8 years who participated in the TARGet Kids! Cohort between 2008 and 2019. TARGet Kids! is a primary care practice-based research network and cohort study in Toronto. Details of these children’s diets depended on their parents, who answered whether their children were vegetarians (which included vegans) or non-vegetarians.

During each health supervision visit over the years, research assistants for TARGet Kids! measured participants’ body mass index, weight, height, cholesterol levels, triglycerides, vitamin D levels and serum ferritin levels. Ferritin is a cellular protein that stores iron and allows the body to use iron when needed, so a ferritin test indirectly measures blood iron levels, according to Mount Sinai Health System.

At the start of the study, 248 children (including 25 vegans) were vegetarians, and another 338 children became vegetarians later in the study. The children were followed for almost three years on average. There were no significant differences between vegetarian and non-vegetarian children regarding standard BMI, height, serum ferritin levels and vitamin D levels.

However, vegetarian children were nearly twice as likely to be underweight as non-vegetarian children.

Being underweight can be a sign of malnutrition and may indicate that one’s diet is not sufficient to support proper growth, according to the study’s press release. The authors did not have access to specific details on diet intake or quality and physical activity, which could influence growth and nutrition.

Studies with longer follow-up periods and information about motivations for eating vegetarian — such as socioeconomic status — would also be helpful in understanding links between childhood development and vegetarianism, the authors said.

The findings highlight “the need for careful dietary planning for underweight children when considering vegetarian diets,” Maguire said.

“Children who were underweight in both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian (groups) were similar and were younger and of Asian descent,” said Amy Kimberlain, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition. and dietetics. Kimberlain did not participate in the study.

“Ethnicity could definitely have played a role in determining weight,” said Dr. Maya Adam, clinical assistant professor in the Stanford School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, who was not involved in the study.

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The Asian children “were likely of East Indian descent because that subset of the ‘Asian’ demographic (which I also end up picking as a person of Indian descent) is much more likely to practice vegetarianism”, Adam said via email. “In India, child growth charts differ from American growth charts. An average 5-year-old girl in India should weigh 17 kilograms and be about 108 centimeters tall. In the United States, an average 5-year-old girl of the same size should weigh 18 kg.”

Either way, “it’s important that children are monitored for their growth, regardless of their diet,” Kimberlain said. “A vegetarian diet can be a healthy choice for all children. The key is to make sure it is well planned. With the help of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, children’s growth can be monitored as well as their needs. in nutrients to ensure they are being consumed enough.”

If you and your kids are trying to eat vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to have alternative options “in case one day they like something and the next they don’t,” Kimberlain said.

Instructions by country

When feeding babies and children a vegetarian diet, parents should ensure regular consumption of eggs, dairy products, soy products, and nuts or seeds, in addition to vegetables, fruits, beans and lentils, grains and oils, recommends the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans. .
Be very careful to include foods high in iron and vitamin B12, as plant sources of these nutrients are less bioavailable than animal foods. Different beans, dark leafy greens, and sweet potatoes are high in iron. And nutritional yeast, dairy products and cereals are sources of vitamin B12. The guidelines have a graphic chart of the appropriate servings of each food group per day.
Canadian guidelines indicate that a vegetarian diet may be suitable for children when milk and eggs are included.

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