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Study: Vegetarian diet safe for children

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A new study says no, vegetarian diets are not harmful to children.

Children who follow a vegetarian diet are just as healthy as children who eat a diet that includes meat, according to a new study (Pediatrics. 2022. e2021052598). 

Plant-based diets including vegan and vegetarian diets continue to rise in popularity, especially among younger generations. Millennials and Gen Z, for example—which comprise 47% of the population and will continue to grow in spending power—have particularly high demand for plant-based foods

In 2021, 5% of children 8 to 17 years old followed a vegetarian diet that completely excluded meat, fish, seafood and poultry, according to The Vegetarian Resource Group.  

Health authorities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics support a well-balanced vegetarian diet for children. However, certain nutrients can be scarce in a vegetarian diet, lending debate over whether the diet protocol is suitable for developing children.  

The present study, published in Pediatrics, examined the relationship between a vegetarian diet and growth and nutrition in children. 

The study involved 8,907 children—including 248 vegetarian children at baseline—ages 6 months to 8 years who participated in the TARGet Kids! cohort study. TARGet Kids! is an ongoing open longitudinal cohort study that follows healthy children into adolescence to identify links between early life exposures and health problems such as obesity, micronutrient deficiencies and developmental problems. 

Participants were categorized by vegetarian status and non-vegetarian status. Vegetarian status was defined as a dietary pattern that excludes meat. 

Compared to children who ate meat, children who had a vegetarian diet had similar mean body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D and cholesterol levels. 

However, children with a vegetarian diet had almost twofold higher odds of being underweight, which is defined as below the third percentile for BMI. Underweight can be an indication of poor nutrition, often linked with issues such as vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition.  

A vegetarian diet was not associated with overweight or obesity. 

“In this study, we did not find evidence of clinically meaningful differences in growth or biochemical measures of nutrition for children with vegetarian diet,” study authors wrote. “However, vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of underweight, underscoring the need for careful dietary planning for underweight children when considering vegetarian diets.” 

Food product developers can go a long way in helping kids get the nutrition they need. That is, if they’re successful in creating products that appeal to kids—and their parents. That means using ingredients such as fiber, whole grains and protein to develop products that taste great, are easy to eat and appeal to kids’ creativity.  

Rachel Adams joined Informa’s Health & Nutrition Network in 2013. Her career in the natural products industry started with a food and beverage focus before transitioning into her role as managing editor of Natural Products INSIDER, where she covered the dietary supplement industry. Adams left Informa Markets in 2019. 

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