May 26, 2022

Study compares vegetarian diets verses traditional diets in children

Study compares vegetarian diets verses traditional diets in children

By: Sydney Sheffield 

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics by researchers at The University of Toronto, found children who eat vegetarian diets have similar growth outcomes to children who eat meat. The TARGet Kids! study investigated 9,000 children, ages 6 months to 8 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 in Canada,” said Jonathon Maguire, principal investigator on the study who is a professor in U of T’s department of pediatrics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital. “This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets.” 

The TARGet Kids! study showed children who consumed meat maintained similar body mass index (BMI), vitamin D, iron, height, and cholesterol levels when compared to vegetarian participants. However, the study found children with a vegetarian diet had higher odds (1.87% increase) of being underweight compared to children who consumed meat. “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,” Maguire said. 

A limitation in the TARGet Kids! study was that the researchers did not assess the quality of the vegetarian diets. These diets are not a one-size-fits-all model, some include more nutrients than others. Many fake meat alternatives are ultra-processed and negate the supposed health benefits seen with a vegetarian diet. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition examined this and found consuming a higher intake of the processed form of plant-based foods may not reap the health benefits often attributed to plant-based diets, concluding that not all vegetarian diets are advantageous. 

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), emphasize the importance of infants and toddlers consuming a variety of foods from all food groups, specifically foods rich in iron and zinc. Animal-sourced foods are particularly rich in these nutrients. Likewise, the DGA warns of potential downfalls with a vegetarian dietary pattern during the second year of life, specifically noting the lack of iron and B-12 in vegetarian diets. 

The authors of the TARGet Kids! study says further research is needed to examine the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood, as well as growth and nutrition outcomes among children following a vegan diet, which excludes meat and animal-sourced products such as dairy, eggs, and honey.