As vegetarianism, veganism, and plant-based meat alternatives continue to gain popularity, it’s only natural that parents might wonder how a meat-free diet may impact their children. The topic is perhaps surprisingly controversial, with the Washington Post reporting in February of this year on a popular TikToker receiving backlash after announcing plans to raise their child on a vegan diet. Commenters wrote the parent should be reported to child protective services over the decision, with some appearing to believe the child would be malnourished and potentially die from the meat-free lifestyle. According to a news release, researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto decided to tackle this question in response to the confusion and lack of information available about the diet’s effect on children; and their findings, published in Pediatrics, have yielded compelling results.
The study looked at the diets of nearly 9,000 children, ranging in age from six months to eight years, who participated in the TARGet Kids! cohort study between 2008 and 2019. Of the 8,907 children included in the study, 248 had a vegetarian diet from the start (and 25 of those 248 were vegan), while 338 reported becoming vegetarian at some point during the study.
According to the study’s findings, children who ate a vegetarian diet showed similar growth and nutrition levels compared to their meat-eating counterparts. That being said, researchers did find that, compared to omnivores, vegetarian children were more likely to be underweight.
What the study’s findings mean
Researchers looked at the children’s body mass index (BMI), height, and levels of iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol to determine their growth and nutrition levels. As mentioned above, per the study’s findings there wasn’t a significant difference in outcome between vegetarian and meat-eating children. Where the study did find a difference, however, was in the children’s weight: Vegetarian children were almost twice as likely to be underweight (as defined by a BMI below the third percentile, explains the news release). This finding suggests the need for thoughtful dietary planning and growth monitoring when it comes to vegetarian children.
Notably, the study didn’t look at the quality of the children’s diets, just whether or not they contained meat. As the news release pointed out, vegetarian diets can vary wildly in quality depending on the individual. These variations may be responsible for differing growth outcomes, and therefore require further study.
In the meantime, vegetarianism is a safe choice for many children — as long as you keep an eye on what they’re eating. As always, please consult a doctor before making any dietary changes. As the study’s lead author Dr. Jonathon Maguire concluded, per the news release: "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 … Vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children."