Amid the increasing magnitude of climate change and health-related concerns, veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise across the globe. A survey conducted in January 2022 reveals that 10 percent of American adults now follow a vegetarian diet. In Canada, more than two million people identify themselves as vegans, whereas more than one-third of the UK’s population is also willing to shift to a plant-based diet.
However, a daunting question that many parents come across when their kids start eating a vegetarian diet is whether or not a totally plant-based diet can provide their children with all the necessary nutrients? Interestingly, a team of researchers from St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto has tried to answer this question in its study recently published in the medical journal Pediatrics.
Vegetarian kids vs non-vegetarian kids
From 2008 to 2019, the authors of the study examined data concerning the weight, vitamin D level, body mass index, height, iron content, and cholesterol levels of 8,907 Canadian children aged between six to eight years old. These children and their parents participated in TARGet Kids!, a research network in Canada that aims to bring advancement in child healthcare strategies through different research projects.
Based on dietary information received from the parents, researchers categorized the children as vegetarians and non-vegetarians and compared their physical growth. While highlighting the importance of their study, lead researcher and pediatrician Dr. Jonathan Maguire said, "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 in Canada."
The analysis of factors (such as BMI, weight, etc.) that were taken into consideration for comparing the growth of the participants suggested that children who followed a vegetarian diet had the same nutritional levels as non-vegetarian kids. However, the study pointed out that vegetarians kids are at a higher (twice) risk of remaining underweight as compared to the meat consumers of their age.
Therefore, parents are recommended to consult healthcare experts for growth monitoring and ensuring a good diet plan for kids who are underweight but live on a vegetarian diet. Dr. Maguire writes, " [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."
Limitation of the study
Unlike meat that is primarily consumed in the form of fish, chicken, or pork, vegetarian diets can be of numerous types. For instance, some fruits and vegetables such as mushrooms, coconut, and raspberries are rich in iron. Food items like cereals, milk, tofu, and spinach are good sources of vitamin D and protein. Whereas a diet that mainly consists of oats, bananas, rice, and wheat is high in carbs.
The recent study conducted at St. Michael’s Hospital does not mention the type and quality of vegetarian diet consumed by the vegetarian participants. Therefore, further research is required so that a more detailed comparison between the nutritional levels of vegetarian, vegan, and non-vegetarian children can be made.