Vegetarian diets are a healthy choice for growing kids — though they may slightly raise the odds of youngsters being underweight, a new study suggests.
The study, of nearly 9,000 young children, found that those on vegetarian diets were, on average, of similar weight and height as their peers who ate meat. They were also on par when it came to blood levels of iron and vitamin D — which could potentially be harder to get on a diet free of meat, fish and, sometimes, dairy products.
The one trouble spot was that vegetarian children were twice as likely as other kids to be underweight. However, the vast majority — 94% — were not.
The findings, published online May 2 in the journal Pediatrics, support existing guidelines. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for example, says that well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for people of all ages, including young children.
But while such diets are considered healthful, relatively few studies have looked at the impact on kids’ growth and nutritional status, said Dr. Jonathon Maguire, the senior researcher on the new work.
He called his team’s findings “good news.”
“More and more parents are choosing vegetarian diets for their kids,” said Maguire, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto.
And those parents, more than likely vegetarians themselves, are typically “very thoughtful” about ensuring their kids get the nutrients they need, Maguire said.
“This study suggests that whatever these parents are doing, it’s working out well,” he said.
When vegetarian diets are done right, Maguire noted, they are rich in vegetables, fruit, high-fiber grains, beans and — often — dairy products and eggs. They also typically eschew processed foods high in added sugars and low in nutritional value.
As for the higher likelihood of vegetarian kids being underweight, Maguire said that is something for pediatricians to keep an eye on. Underweight children should have their growth more closely tracked, and their parents may need help from a nutrition specialist in crafting a balanced diet.
Amy Reed is a pediatric dietitian at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
She said that for some young children on vegetarian diets, the high fiber content can be an issue: Fiber-rich foods are filling but often fairly low in calories.
Reed, who was not involved with the study, said that if a child is underweight or there are concerns about nutritional deficiencies, parents can ask for a referral to a dietitian.
With meat-free diets, Reed said, certain nutrients might be harder to get in the right amounts — including zinc, vitamin B12, protein and calcium. But, she added, that depends on which foods kids are eating.
When they are consuming eggs and dairy, Reed said, those shortfalls are typically not a worry. Plus, kids can get those nutrients from plant foods such as beans, nuts and fortified nondairy “milks,” cereals and nutritional yeasts.
“It’s important to have an open mind,” Reed said. “Vegetarian diets can be healthy at any age.”
The study findings are based on 8,907 Canadian children who were 2 years old, on average, at the outset, and followed for an average of three years. At the study’s start, 248 children were vegetarian.
Overall, the researchers found, children on meat-free diets were similar to peers as far as growth, weight and blood levels of iron, vitamin D and cholesterol. The only difference was in the risk of being underweight: About 6% of vegetarian kids were underweight, versus roughly 3% of their meat-eating peers.
The large majority of kids on meat-free diets were vegetarian, not vegan (free of all animal products, including dairy and eggs). And vegetarian children consumed about as much cow’s milk as non-vegetarian kids — at just over a cup a day.
Because of that, Maguire said, it’s not possible to draw conclusions about vegan diets for young kids.
Reed noted that, in general, children often get “fixated” on a small number of foods between the ages of 2 and 5.
“A lot of kids that age are self-imposed vegetarians, and don’t eat meat,” she said.
Young children can find meat difficult to chew and swallow, Reed pointed out, and they may prefer protein sources like beans.
She also stressed the importance of parents and kids alike eating plenty of plant foods, which, Reed noted, does not require going meat-free.
The Nemours Foundation has more on vegetarian diets for children.
SOURCES: Jonathon Maguire, MD, MSc, pediatrician, St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto, Canada; Amy Reed, RD, MS, pediatric dietitian, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago; Pediatrics, May 2, 2022, online