Do children on vegetarian diet receive enough nutrition? Here’s what research shows

According to a new study, children who eat vegetarian food have similar growth and nutrition measures, compared to children who eat meat. As per the study led by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health, children having a vegetarian diet were more likely to be underweight, which emphasises the need for planning carefully of childhood nutrition.

In Canada, the findings come as uptake of plant-based diets is on the rise. Updates to Canada’s Food Guide promoted plant-based proteins like tofu and beans, instead of meat, in 2019.

According to Dr. Jonathon Maguire, lead author of the study, there has been a growing popularity of plant-based diets and a changing food environment with more access to plant-based alternatives, over the last 20 years, however, there has not been any research into the nutritional outcomes of children following vegetarian diets in Canada.

The study showed that Canadian children on vegetarian diets had similar biochemical measures of nutrition and growth compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets.

The researchers had evaluated around 9000 children who were as young as six months old that had taken part in the TARGet Kids! cohort study, where the quality of the vegetarian diet was not considered in the assessment.

Researchers found that children who ate vegetarian food had similar body mass index (BMI), vitamin D, iron, height and cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed meat. The vegetarian participants showed increased odds of being underweight and no association with obesity.

Being underweight is an indication of undernutrition which happens when the diet of the child is not meet the nutritional needs to support growth.

According to international guidelines, there are differing recommendations when it comes to childhood vegetarian diets as there have been conflicting findings in the past studies, regarding childhood growth and nutritional status.

Researchers believe that there is further research that needs to be done regarding the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood and also understand childhood growth and nutrition that is impacted by a vegan diet, which excludes things like meat as well as animal derived products like eggs, dairy and honey.

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics which was funded by St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and SickKids Foundation and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).