Does a vegetarian diet negatively affect children’s growth and nutrition?

A study of about 9,000 children found that those who ate a vegetarian diet had similar growth and nutrition measures compared to children who ate meat. The study, published in Pediatrics and led by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto also found that children on a vegetarian diet were more likely to be underweight, and emphasized the need for special care when planning the diets of vegetarian children.

The findings come as a shift to consuming a plant-based diet is growing in Canada. In 2019, updates to the Canada Food Guide urged Canadians to adopt plant-based proteins, such as beans and tofu, instead of meat.

“Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a growing popularity of plant-based diets and a changing food environment with more access to plant-based alternatives, but we haven’t seen research on the nutritional outcomes of children on vegetarian diets in Canada.” he said. Dr. Jonathon Maguire, lead author of the study and pediatrician at St. Michael’s of Unity Health Toronto.

“This study shows that Canadian children on vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical nutritional measures compared to children on non-vegetarian diets. The vegetarian diet was more likely to be underweight. emphasizes the need for careful dietary planning for underweight children when considering vegetarian diets. ”

The researchers evaluated 8,907 children between the ages of six months and eight years. The children were all participants in TARget Kids! The cohort study and data were collected between 2008 and 2019. Participants were classified by vegetarian status, defined as a dietary pattern that excludes meat, or by non-vegetarian status.

The researchers found that children on a vegetarian diet had similar levels of body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol compared to those who ate meat. The findings showed evidence that children on a vegetarian diet were almost twice as likely to be underweight, which is defined below the third percentile of BMI. There was no evidence of an association with overweight or obesity.

Low weight is an indicator of malnutrition and can be a sign that the quality of the child’s diet does not meet the nutritional needs of the child to support normal growth. For children who eat a vegetarian diet, the researchers emphasized access to health care providers who can provide growth monitoring, education, and guidance to support their growth and nutrition.

International guidelines on vegetarian diet in childhood and infancy have different recommendations, and previous studies that have assessed the relationship between vegetarian diet and childhood growth and nutritional status have had conflicting conclusions.

“Plant-based dietary patterns are recognized as a healthy eating pattern due to increased intake of fruits, vegetables, fiber, whole grains, and reduced saturated fats; however, few studies have evaluated the impact of healthy eating. vegetarian diets in child growth and nutritional status. Vegetarian diets appear to be suitable for most children, “said Dr. Maguire, who is also a scientist at St. Paul’s MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions. Michael.

One limitation of the study is that the researchers did not evaluate the quality of vegetarian diets. Researchers point out that vegetarian diets take many forms and the quality of the individual diet can be quite important for growth and nutritional outcomes. The authors say more research is needed to examine the quality of vegetarian diets during childhood, as well as growth and nutrition outcomes among children on a vegan diet, which excludes meat and animal products such as dairy, egg and honey.


Elliott LJ, Keown-Stoneman CDG, Birken CS, et al. Diet, Growth, and Vegetarian Nutrition in Early Childhood: A Longitudinal Cohort Study. Pediatrics. Posted online May 2, 2022: e2021052598. doi: 10.1542 / peds.2021-052598

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