For climate protection, for animal reasons or for health reasons: vegetarianism is a problem in many families. Parents are not the only ones who worry about whether a purely vegetarian diet entails physical disadvantages for young children. Canadian scientists now report that children who eat vegetarian are more likely to be underweight than their meat-eating peers. They are almost twice as likely to be underweight, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics.
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Vegetarians and meat eaters alike healthy
Vegetarians are on average also a little smaller: For a three-year-old child, the size difference is about three millimeters, as the team led by professor of pediatrics Jonathan L. Maguire of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto writes. However, it is still unclear how the difference in size arose. The children examined show no nutrient deficiency, they have a similar body mass index (BMI) and similar iron, vitamin D and cholesterol levels as meat eaters.
The researchers studied about 9,000 children aged six months to eight years, the data were collected between 2008 and 2019. The parents were asked about the young participants’ diets using a questionnaire: According to this, a total of 248 of the children ate a meat-free diet.
The study has weaknesses
Peter von Philipsborn, research assistant at the chair of Public Health and Health Services Research at LMU Munich, pointed out the weaknesses of the study to the Science Media Center (SMC). The Canadian data would show that more vegetarian children are underweight than their meat-eating peers. However, the study never documented a difference between the two groups in terms of average body weight. “As the number of underweight children in the study was very low overall, the apparent difference between the two groups may therefore be due to a random effect,” von Philipsborn said.
Another source of error: The study used a method to classify children as underweight, which is developed for children of European descent, the care researcher explained. “When this method is applied to children of Asian descent, experts believe it may lead to an overestimation of the incidence of underweight,” he said.
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In fact, one-third of the vegetarian or vegan children in the study were Asian; among the conventionally fed children, however, the proportion was only 20 per cent. “This may explain why the proportion of children who are underweight appears to be higher among the vegetarian or vegan children in the current study.”
Diets were not studied
Maguire’s team also qualified that various vegetarian diets had not been studied. Therefore, further work will be needed to assess the long-term consequences of a vegetarian or vegan diet that completely excludes animal products such as milk, eggs and honey on children’s nutritional status.
Hans Hauner, director of the Else Kröner Fresenius Center for Nutrition Medicine at the Technical University of Munich, told SMC: A vegetarian diet with milk intake is probably harmless for young children, but a vegan diet should still be considered critical until proven otherwise and should not recommended if possible.
The German Society for Nutrition is in favor of a vegetarian diet for children and young people as a permanent diet, but not a vegan diet – just as little as it does for pregnant and breastfeeding women.