Children who eat a vegetarian diet has similar measures of growth and nutrition compared to those who eat meat, according to a new study led by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto.
The study also found that those with a vegetarian diet had higher odds of underweight weight status, emphasizing the need for special care when planning the diets of vegetarian kids.
The findings come as a shift to consuming a plant-based diet grows in Canada. In 2019, updates to Canada’s Food Guide urged Canadians to embrace plant-based proteins, such as beans and tofu, instead of meat.
Researchers evaluated 8,907 children aged six months to eight years. The children were all participants of the ‘TARGet Kids!’ cohort study and data was collected between 2008 and 2019. Participants were categorized by vegetarian status, defined as a dietary pattern that excludes meat, or non-vegetarian status.
“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, however, few studies have evaluated the impact of vegetarian diets on childhood growth and nutritional status. Vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children.”
The results showed that children who had a vegetarian diet had similar mean body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed meat. The findings showed evidence that children with a vegetarian diet had almost two-fold higher odds of having underweight, which is defined as below the third percentile for BMI. There was no evidence of an association with overweight or obesity.
A limitation of the study is that researchers did not assess the quality of the vegetarian diets. The researchers note that vegetarian diets come in many forms and the quality of the individual diet may be quite important to the growth and nutritional outcomes.