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Young boy eating vegetables

Vegetarian diet not linked to differences in nutritional status, growth

July 1, 2022

Children who were vegetarians had similar growth and nutritional status as nonvegetarians, according to a longitudinal study of children ages 6 months to 8 years.

Surveys show diets that don’t include meat are becoming more common among both adults and children, but evidence is sparce on how plant-based diets affect childhood growth and biochemical measures of nutrition. As a result, medical organizations have different recommendations on whether such diets are safe for children.

The authors of this study looked at how a vegetarian diet affects weight, height, iron stores, vitamin D stores and serum lipids in ethnically diverse children in Toronto, Canada. Their results were published in Pediatrics (https://bit.ly/3lmvxfP).

Among the 8,907 study participants, 248 were vegetarian at baseline and 338 reported being vegetarian during the study. Growth measures were available for 8,794 children and venous blood from 4,673.

On average, children were 2.2 years at baseline, and they were followed for about three years.

Researchers found no association between vegetarian diet and mean body mass index z-score, regardless of whether cow’s milk was consumed.

In an adjusted model, vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of underweight but not overweight or obesity. A small difference was found in height-for-age z-score (0.3 centimeters for a 3-year-old).

Neither the unadjusted or adjusted model showed an association between vegetarian diet and serum ferritin, 25-hydroxyvitamin D or serum lipids (nonhigh-density lipoprotein [HDL] cholesterol, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein, HDL and triglycerides). 

“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 authors 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.”

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