Vegetarian kids are twice as likely to be too skinny, study shows

TORONTO — While children who grow up in vegetarian or vegan households may have the same nutrition as their meat-eating peers, a new study finds vegetarian kids are twice as likely to be underweight.

Canadian researchers found that kids who don’t eat meat still had similar growth and nutrition levels as other children. The team at St Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto analyzed data from 8,907 children age from six months to eight years-old between 2008 and 2019.

“Over the last 20 years we have seen growing popularity of plant-based diets and a changing food environment with more access to plant-based alternatives, however we have not seen research into the nutritional outcomes of children following vegetarian diets,” says lead author and pediatrician Dr. Jonathon Maguire in a media release.

“This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets,” Maguire adds. “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.”

The children in the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, were all participants of the TARGet Kids! cohort study.

What are the dangers of being underweight?

Researchers found children who had a vegetarian diet had similar average body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed meat. However, the findings showed evidence that children with a vegetarian diet were nearly twice as likely to be underweight for their age. In terms of BMI, being underweight means being in the lower third percentile. Researchers did not find evidence of a link between this diet and being overweight or obese.

Being underweight is an indicator of malnutrition and may be a sign that the quality of the child’s diet is not meeting their nutritional needs to support normal growth. For children who eat a vegetarian diet, the researchers recommended growth monitoring, education, and guidance to support their growth and nutrition.

“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,” Dr. Maguire continues.

The researchers note that vegetarian diets come in many forms and the quality of the individual diet may be quite important to growth and nutritional outcomes. Despite that, they say further research is necessary to examine the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood, as well as growth and nutrition outcomes among children following a vegan diet.

South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.

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