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The number of people shifting to consuming plant-based diets are growing worldwide. Over the last few years, we have seen a growing popularity of plant-based meat alternatives, such tofu, tempeh, seitan, Quorn, green jackfruit and others. Parents who have switched to vegetarian diet are also encouraging their children to consume more plant-based foods. However, few studies have evaluated the impact of vegetarian diets on childhood growth and nutritional status. Will children who eat meat have better growth than those with a vegetarian diet?
A study recently published in Pediatrics found that children who eat a vegetarian diet have similar measures of growth and nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets. However, it also revealed that 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.
Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital of Unity Health Toronto studied the dietary pattern (vegetarian status or non-vegetarian status) of nearly 9,000 Canadian children aged six months to eight years. The data collected was between 2008 and 2019.
The findings showed that children who had a vegetarian diet had similar mean body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed meat.
But the researchers also found that children with a vegetarian diet had almost two-fold higher odds of having underweight, which is defined as below the third percentile for BMI.
The researchers noted that underweight is an indicator of undernutrition and may be a sign that the quality of the child's diet is not meeting the child's nutritional needs to support normal growth.
Hence, for children following a vegetarian diet, the researchers emphasized access to healthcare providers who can provide growth monitoring, education and guidance to support their growth and nutrition.
Dr. Maguire, who is also a scientist at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael's Hospital, concluded that vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children.
In their concluding remark, the researchers noted that vegetarian diets come in many forms and the quality of the individual diet may be quite important to growth and nutritional outcomes. One of the limitations of their study is that they did not assess the quality of the vegetarian diets. Thus, they stressed the need for further research to examine the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood
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