Health Effects of Vegetarian Diet Analyzed in Children

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Vegetarian Diet Found to Be Healthy Option for Children

Following a vegetarian diet appears to be a healthy option for children, with few meaningful differences in key growth-related outcomes between children who did or didn’t do so, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Many studies have shown potential health benefits from following a healthy plant-based diet — a phrase that doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as a vegetarian diet. In most studies, a healthy plant-based diet has been defined as eating mostly healthy plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and other legumes, and nuts and seeds. A vegetarian diet, on the other hand, typically involves avoiding meat and poultry entirely, with some definitions also including avoiding fish. Most definitions of “vegetarian” allow consumption of dairy products and eggs, while an entirely plant-based or vegan diet means not eating these foods.

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Following a healthy plant-based diet has been shown to reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes, and a plant-based diet that includes fermented dairy foods like yogurt may help prevent the most common forms of cardiovascular disease. A healthy plant-based diet may also help prevent age-related cognitive decline. But some researchers have been interested in looking at whether focusing on plant-based nutrition could be beneficial during childhood, or whether a vegetarian diet could actually be harmful during this phase of life. Dietary factors during childhood have gained attention as increasing numbers of U.S. teens develop prediabetes, potentially putting them at risk for diabetes and other serious health problems as they get older.

For the latest study, researchers examined health outcomes in a group of 8,907 Canadian children who were 6 months to 8 years old when they enrolled in the study, with an average age of 2.2 years. At the time of study enrollment, 248 of these children were following a vegetarian diet and 25 were following a vegan diet. Participants were followed for an average of 2.8 years, as noted in an article on the study at Medscape. Children who followed a vegetarian diet tended to be similar to other participants except for a couple of key differences — they were more likely to be of Asian descent, and they had an average breastfeeding duration of 12.6 months, compared with 10.0 months for nonvegetarian children.

Increased rates of underweight, no meaningful height differences in vegetarian children

The researchers found that over the course of the study period, children who followed a vegetarian diet were 87% more likely to be underweight based on their body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account). But they tended to have normal growth when it came to height, with no significant difference between those who did or didn’t follow a vegetarian diet. There was also no significant difference when it came to being overweight or obese, blood vitamin D levels, or blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels.

Separately, the researchers found that consuming cow’s milk was linked to higher total cholesterol and LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad”) cholesterol in children who followed a vegetarian diet. But levels of these lipids were similar in all children who consumed the recommended levels of two cups of cow’s milk per day, regardless of whether they followed a vegetarian diet.

“In this study, we did not find evidence of clinically meaningful differences in growth or biochemical measures of nutrition for children with vegetarian diet,” the researchers concluded. “However, vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of underweight, underscoring the need for careful dietary planning for underweight children when considering vegetarian diets.”

Want to learn more about parenting a child with type 1 diabetes? Read “The Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosis,” “Type 1 Diabetes and Sleepovers or Field Trips,” “Writing a Section 504 Plan for Diabetes” and “Top 10 Tips for Better Blood Glucose Control.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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