Health outcomes and growth rates are similar amongst children who follow a vegetarian diet and children who eat meat, academics have said.
Research conducted by scientists at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto has also found that vegetarian children are more underweight than children with an ordinary meat diet.
Plant-based diets have increased in popularity across Canada, with the country’s food guide encouraging citizens to replace meat with plant proteins, including tofu and beans.
Chief author, Dr Jonathon 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.
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“This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diet had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets.”
He added: “Vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of underweight status, underscoring the need for careful dietary planning for underweight children when considering vegetarian diets.”
During the study, the team of researchers examined the eating patterns of more than 8,000 children to assess how it impacted their growth.
They discovered that children following either a vegetarian or meat diet had similar vitamin D levels, iron levels and cholesterol levels.
On average, the body mass index (BMI) and height of the children was similar, regardless of their diet, the study has reported.
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In addition, the scientists detected that children following a vegetarian diet were twice as likely to be underweight compared to children eating a meat diet.
According to the report, underweight children could be lacking vital nutrients that are crucial for growth.
Dr Maguire said: “Plant-based dietary patterns are recognised as a healthy eating pattern due to increase intake of fruits, vegetables, fibre, 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.”
The paper, Vegetarian Diet, Growth, and Nutrition in Early Childhood: A Longitudinal Cohort Study, has been published in the journal Pediatrics.