vegetarian diet

Nutrition experts are calling for the switchover to a predominantly vegetarian diet to save the planet and at the same time get nutritious food.

But we all know that children are growing and their protein demands are more. Can they sustain and remain healthy on a diet of vegetables only? A Toronto study has tried to provide answers.

Vegetarian diet and children

Most of the high-quality protein comes from an animal, poultry, and fish source. Plant-based foods also provide proteins but their content as well as bioavailability might be less.

Children are growing and developing. Hence their protein demands are more. Over the past two decades, diet experts are recommending people increase plant-based foods in their diet and limit the number of meat.

This, they state, would be good for their body as well as the planet and climate.

Will such a vegetarian diet be good and healthy for children? Dr. Jonathon Maguire, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto and a scientist at MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital says:

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,”​

vegetarian diet
Kids and vegetarian diet (Source: Children’s medical group)

In 2019, Canadian dietary guidelines were updated. It too advised a shift to predominantly plant-based foods. It asked its citizens to add dietary fiber, fruit, vegetables, and nuts into their diet. This will ensure a healthy heart.

The Toronto study

To determine how a solely plant-based diet affects kids’ growth, Dr. Jonathon and his team from St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto studied the health records of 8,907 Canadian children (aged 6 months to 8 years old). 248 of these were vegetarian eaters.

The impact of veg and non veg diets on weight and growth was analyzed. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation, and Sick Kids Foundation funded this study.

vegetarian diet
Kids can be trained to enjoy vegetables (Source: Academy of nutrition and dietetics)

The study revealed that children on plants and those in meat had similar height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels. But those on plant foods were underweight. Dr. Jonathan opines:

“This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets,”

But he adds:

“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.”

Earlier studies, limitations of this study, and recommendations

Some previous studies compared types of foods and the growth of children. But the results were conflicting. This study found more underweight kids in the plant-based diet eating group.

But the findings are limited because the researchers were not sure of what type of foods the kids took in the plant-based group. Therefore, they feel that:

Larger longitudinal cohort studies with more detailed measures of dietary intake and longer duration of follow-up are needed to fully assess growth and nutritional outcomes,”​

Read more: Insect-eating trial as alternative protein form for children in Wales schools

vegetarian diet
Kids can be healthy on plant-based foods (Source: Unlock food)

However, they feel that plant-based foods for kids are well provided these children work in unison with their healthcare providers and are eating under the supervision of their parents. And Dr. Jonathan concludes:

Plant-based dietary patterns are recognized as a healthy eating pattern due to increased intake of fruits, vegetables, fiber, 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,”