Do children need meat in their diet to grow up optimally? This issue is not only widely discussed among parents. Researchers have now compared the development of vegetarian children and young omnivores.
How do children who do not eat meat develop compared to those who are neither vegetarians nor vegans? This question was the focus of research conducted by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health in Toronto, Canada. For the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, the researchers used data from nearly 9,000 Canadian children. The result: Children who eat vegetarian develop in the same way as meat eaters – but have a deficit.
Study with almost 9000 children
The researchers examined 8,907 children between the ages of six months and eight years. 250 of them did not eat meat. In the period between 2008 and 2019, data were recorded such as height and weight, cholesterol levels and levels of iron and vitamin D in the blood. The evaluation of all the information collected revealed that children who eat vegetarian have about the same height and weight as children who eat meat. A nutrient deficiency could not be detected either.1
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Children who eat vegetarian are at greater risk of becoming underweight
Despite the largely similar results, the researchers found a deficit in the vegetarian children: They were twice as likely to become underweight. Dr. Jonathan Maguire, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health in Toronto, summarizes the results: “This study shows that Canadian children who ate a vegetarian diet compared to children who ate a non-vegetarian diet had similar growth and similar growth rates had biochemical nutritional measures. A vegetarian diet was associated with a higher likelihood of being underweight, underscoring the need for careful nutritional planning for underweight children when considering a vegetarian diet. “2
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Limitations of the study
It should not stand indefinitely that the study has some weaknesses. For example, no distinction was made between whether the children who did not eat meat were “only” vegetarians or even vegans. In addition, the quality of the vegetarian diet was not assessed. As the researchers pointed out, vegetarian diets take many forms, and the quality of a person’s diet also affects nutritional intake.
Another problem: the data were analyzed on the basis of an underweight classification intended for children of European descent. But about a third of the vegetarian children were of Asian descent. But only about one-fifth of young meat eaters. This factor could also have affected the outcome.
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Conclusion: Vegetarian diet is suitable for children
Despite the increased risk of underweight, the pediatrician and study leader conclude: “Vegetarian diet seems to be suitable for most children.” However, parents of vegetarian children should pay special attention to ensuring that the diet is as balanced as possible. The German Society for Nutrition (DGE) shares the view that a plant-based diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain products rich in fiber and few saturated fats is very suitable for children. A vegan diet, on the other hand, is not recommended as it can easily lead to a deficiency of the critical nutrients vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and iodine.3
In a next step, Dr. Maguire and his team are investigating the extent to which the quality of vegetarian food and a pure vegan diet affect children’s development.
- 1. Maguire, J., Elliott, LJ, Birken, CS, et al. (2022). Vegetarian diet, growth and nutrition in early childhood: A longitudinal cohort study. pediatrics.
- 2. Unity Health Toronto. Study shows that children with vegetarian diet have similar growth and nutrition compared to children who eat meat.
- 3. German Society for Nutrition (DGE). Vegan, vegetarian, mixed diet: only minor differences in nutrient supply in children and adolescents. (accessed 5/3/22)