Children With Vegetarian Diet Have Similar Growth and Nutrition Compared to Meat-Eating Peers

A new research study finds children with a vegetarian diet have similar growth and nutrition compared to children who eat meat.

However, children with a vegetarian diet had increased odds of underweight weight status.

A study of almost 9,000 children revealed that those who eat a vegetarian diet had similar measures of growth and nutrition compared to kid’s who eat meat. The research also found that children with a vegetarian diet had increased odds of underweight weight status, emphasizing the need for special care when planning the diets of vegetarian kids. The study was published on May 2, 2022, in the journal Pediatrics and led by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto.

The findings come as a shift to consuming a plant-based diet accelerates in Canada. In 2019, updates to Canada’s Food Guide urged Canadians to embrace plant-based proteins, such as beans, nuts, and tofu, instead of meat.

Dr. Jonathon Maguire, pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto and a scientist at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital. Credit: Unity Health Toronto

“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,” said Dr. Jonathon Maguire, lead author of the study and a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto.

“This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets. A 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 evaluated 8,907 children aged six months to eight years. The children were all participants of the TARGet Kids! cohort study and data was collected between 2008 and 2019. Participants were categorized by vegetarian status – defined as a dietary pattern that excludes meat – or non-vegetarian status.

Researchers found 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. The findings showed evidence 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. There was no evidence of an association with overweight or obesity.

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. For children who eat a vegetarian diet, the researchers emphasized access to healthcare providers who can provide growth monitoring, education and guidance to support their growth and nutrition.

International guidelines about vegetarian diet in infancy and childhood have differing recommendations, and past studies that have evaluated the relationship between vegetarian diet and childhood growth and nutritional status have had conflicting findings.

“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,” said Dr. Maguire, who is also a scientist at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital.

A limitation of the study is that researchers did not assess the quality of the vegetarian diets. The researchers note that vegetarian diets come in many forms and the quality of the individual diet may be quite important to growth and nutritional outcomes. The authors say further research is needed to examine the quality of vegetarian diets in childhood, as well as growth and nutrition outcomes among children following a vegan diet, which excludes meat and animal-derived products such as dairy, egg, and honey.

Reference: “Vegetarian diet, growth, and nutrition in early childhood: A longitudinal cohort study” by Laura J. Elliott, RD, MSc; Charles D.G. Keown-Stoneman, PhD; Catherine S. Birken, MD, MSc, FRCPC; David J.A. Jenkins, MD, PhD, DSc, FRSC, FRCP, FRCPC; Cornelia M. Borkhoff, MSc, PhD; Jonathon L. Maguire, MD, MSc, FRCPC on behalf of the TARGet KIDS! COLLABORATION, 2 May 2022, Pediatrics.
DOI: 10.1542/peds.2021-052598

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and SickKids Foundation.

NutritionObesityPediatricsPopularSt. Michael's Hospital
Comments ( 9 )
Add Comment
  • Sly Bri

    I am vegan have veggie kids & they are potent little characters.no deficiencies at all, in fact they have too much energy..haha..they are mentally sharp as razors, perfect weights & heights & they dont stop eating, like the hungry caterpillars they are.

    • dan

      If they “don’t stop eating” it may be a sign that they are undernourished, underscoring a key indicator of the study.

      • bob charles

        we are always eating. if you stop, you die.

  • Tommy Wood

    The title of the article is misleading, suggesting there are no differences as a consequence of diet. Omitted from the title is a significant consequence, that of weight differential, so that the casual headline-only reader will miss this.

    • danR

      [Seems my comments don’t appear unless in answer to another comment, in spite of leaving my email address. So I’ll try again here; but my comment is cogent with respect to yours.]

      Buried in the study’s protocols is that “vegan” is silently subsumed under the category “vegetarian”. This may be skewing the indicator that vegetarian children are undernourished. It would add weight to the suspicion that vegan diets proper are sub-optimal, and parents might want to seriously weigh their choices of sending their families down that route.

  • Chilango

    Wait, children with vegetarian diet have similar growth and nutrition but the article then says:
    The findings showed evidence that children with a vegetarian diet had almost two-fold higher odds of having underweight, 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.

  • John Donohue

    Agree this is a dishonest headline for the article. However, here’s the deeper issue: please do a study of obese children between one and four years old. Report on their diet. Here, I’ll expose my agenda: no child or adult can get obese when fat-adapted (like our ancestors for 3 million years) and childhood obesity is caused by being glucose-adapted (like our ancestors for a few thousand years in the recent past — agriculture.)

  • Dontbeweakvato

    Nice try. But I will continue consuming animal proteins.

  • Herbavore in Ontario

    Better tell my kids they are weak and deficient, 3rd generation vegetarians, that’s why their birth weight was over 8 and 10 pounds respectively, The Nurses in the birthing unit wanted to know why their muscle tone was noticeably better? Straight A students to boot no one called us about this study.