Vegetarian children more likely to be underweight, study finds

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

According to a study published May 2 in the journal Pediatrics, vegetarian children have similar levels of nutrition and growth as their meat-eating peers, but may have nearly double the risk of being underweight.

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

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

Vitamin D

as meat eaters did, suggesting that vegetarian children could consume enough without eating meat.

However, vegetarian children were almost twice as likely as meat eaters to be underweight, based on body mass index or weight-to-height ratio.

Being underweight may indicate a higher risk of malnutrition or a lack of 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 results.

According to Dr. Jonathon Maguire, lead author of the study and a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto, the findings underscore that careful planning is important when it comes to meeting the nutritional needs of children on diets. vegetarian.

“Plant-based diets are recognized as a healthy way of eating due to increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, fiber, whole grains, and a reduction in saturated fat,” Maguire said in a Press release. “Vegetarian diets seem to work for most children.”

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

One of the main limitations 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, according to the evidence. 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 linked to health issues.

A small 2021 study found that vegetarian children who ate more processed plant-based foods had high cholesterol and blood sugar levels. According to the researchers, they also tended to eat fewer foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains, lacking in important vitamins and nutrients like fiber.

“We are learning that simply eating plant-based diets is no guarantee of health, we should always select healthy foods,” said Dr. MaƂgorzata Desmond, first author of this study and researcher at Children’s Memorial. Health Institute, in a press release. .

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

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

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