A study of nearly 9,000 children found that those who ate a plant-based diet had the same measures of growth and nutrition as children who ate meat.
The study, which was led by researchers at the University of Toronto and St Michael’s Hospital at Unity Health Toronto, also found that children who followed a vegan diet had higher odds of being underweight — underscoring the need for special care when planning diets for vegetarian children.
The results are published in the journal Pediatrics, comes the shift to consuming vegetarian diets in Canada. In 2019, updates to the Canadian Food Guide urged Canadians to adopt plant-based proteins, such as beans and tofu, instead of meat.
“Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a growing popularity of plant-based diets and a changing food environment with greater access to plant-based alternatives, yet we haven’t seen research on the nutritional outcomes of children on plant-based diets in Canada,” Jonathan Maguirethe study’s principal investigator is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Tamerte at the Faculty of Medicine of Timerte and a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital.
“This study shows that Canadian children who eat plant-based diets have the same growth and biochemical feeding procedures as children who eat non-vegetarian diets,” said Maguire, who is also a scientist at the U of T’s Joannah & Brian Lawson Center for Child Nutrition. “A plant-based diet was associated with higher odds of being underweight, underscoring the need for careful nutritional planning for underweight children when considering plant-based diets.”
Researchers evaluated 8,907 children aged six months to eight years. The children were all participating in TARGet Kids! Data and the cohort study were collected between 2008 and 2019. Participants were categorized by vegetarian status – defined as a dietary pattern that excluded meat – or non-vegetarian status.
The team found that children who followed a plant-based diet had the same average body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels as those who ate meat. The results showed evidence that children who followed a plant-based diet had approximately two times higher odds of being underweight, which is defined as less than the third percentile for body mass index. There was no evidence of an association with being overweight or obese.
Being underweight is an indicator of undernutrition, and it may be a sign that the quality of a child’s diet is not meeting the child’s nutritional needs to support normal growth. For children eating a plant-based diet, researchers emphasized access to health care providers who can provide growth monitoring, education, and guidance to support their growth and nutrition.
International guidelines on a vegetarian diet in infancy and childhood have different recommendations, and previous studies that have evaluated the relationship between a vegetarian diet and childhood development and nutritional status have had conflicting results.
“Vegan diets are recognized as a healthy eating pattern due to increased intake of fruits, vegetables, fiber, and whole grains and lower saturated fats; however, few studies have evaluated the impact of vegetarian diets on childhood development and nutritional status,” said Maguire, who is also a scientist at the MAP Center for Health Solutions. Urban at St. Michael’s Hospital, “Vegan diets appear to be appropriate for most children.”
One limitation of the study is that the researchers did not assess the quality of plant-based diets. Researchers note that plant-based diets come in many forms and that the quality of an individual’s diet may be very important to growth and nutritional outcomes. The authors say more research is needed to examine the quality of plant-based diets in childhood, as well as growth and nutrition outcomes among children who follow a vegan diet, which excludes meat and animal-derived products such as dairy, eggs and honey.
The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), St Michael’s Hospital Foundation and the SickKids Foundation.
A version of this story was first published on the website of St Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto.