Children raised on vegetarian diets tend to receive similar levels of key nutrients to those who eat meat, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics. However, the researchers found that veggie kids have a slightly higher risk of being underweight, highlighting the need for careful consideration and planning when it comes to feeding children.
“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,” said study author Dr. Jonathon Maguire in a statement. “However, few studies have evaluated the impact of vegetarian diets on childhood growth and nutritional status.”
To investigate, the researchers analyzed data from 8,907 Canadian children aged six months to eight years, collected between 2008 and 2019. This period saw a significant increase in the popularity of plant-based diets due to a growing awareness of the health and environmental issues associated with meat consumption.
Blood samples revealed that vegetarian children had similar levels of vitamin D, iron, and cholesterol to those whose diets included meat. Such a finding came as something of a surprise to the researchers, given that meat is among the major sources of iron in kids' diets.
At the same time, the data showed that around 6 percent of vegetarian kids were classed as underweight, compared to just 3 percent of meat-eaters. While this two-fold increase in the risk of developing a low body mass index (BMI) is obviously concerning, Maguire insisted that “vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children.” Overall, he says that “children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets.”
Interestingly, previous studies have indicated that children who consume a vegetarian diet tend to be taller than meat-eating kids, yet the herbivorous participants in this analysis were found to be fractionally shorter than their omnivorous counterparts by the age of three. The difference in height between the two groups was too small to be considered clinically significant, though.
When interpreting these findings, it's important to note that the study authors did not look at the actual content of each child’s diet, thus making it difficult to draw broad conclusions about the nutritional value of vegetarian eating patterns. Regardless, Maguire explained that a “vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of underweight weight status, underscoring the need for careful dietary planning for children with underweight when considering vegetarian diets."
Based on these observations, the researchers urge parents and caregivers to seek guidance and education from healthcare providers before deciding whether or not to feed their kids meat.