Parents want to ensure their children get all the nutrients that they need from an early age, but doubts that a plant-based diet can provide kids with such nutrients have circulated for decades. Because of this, it may come as a surprise to hear that children who consume a vegetarian diet show nearly identical measures of growth and nutrition to those who eat meat, according to a groundbreaking study from researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Ontario.

Published in the medical journal Pediatrics, the study could help quiet concerns that a plant-based diet fails to provide sufficient nutrients to growing children. The researchers revealed that they chose to analyze this topic because although speculations about the subject are rampant, there was very little research done to date.

“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,” Lead author of the study and pediatrician Dr. Jonathon Maguire said in a statement.

To conduct the study, the St. Michael’s research team received significant funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research, SickKids Foundation, and St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation. The team examined 8,907 children aged six months to eight years, collecting data that spans 2008 and 2019. The research team divided the participants into two subgroups: Vegetarian and non-vegetarian. After comparing the two groups over the 11-year study period, the researchers found similar health levels and growth rates between the two.

The researchers concluded that the vegetarian children recorded similar body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol levels to the non-vegetarian children. Though the health levels revealed near identical results, the researchers noted that children following a vegetarian diet were more likely to be underweight – meaning they fell below the third percentile for BMI. The study suggests that children with a vegetarian diet should have healthcare providers that can help provide grown monitoring and nutritional education.

Despite relatively positive results, the study authors stated that the research is far from complete. The researchers noted that a limitation of this study is the quality of vegetarian diets was not taken into account. Also, the researchers did not examine the growth rates of children following a vegan diet.

“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,” Maguire said. “Vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children.”

Plant-Based Programs for Kids

With the United Nations calling for a plant-based food system, the world must focus on the future of food, starting with younger generations. Recently, governments have enacted plant-based programs geared at making sure that children have access to nutritious and sustainable foods. These campaigns aim to educate kids on how to sustainably at an earlier age while also cutting down food-related carbon footprints.

New York City has launched a city-wide “Vegan Friday” school lunch program in its public school systems, which intends to supply free plant-based meals to all 1 million students. Outside of the U.S., Brazil recently launched a program that will provide 10 million plant-based meals to students, introducing a new generation to more health-conscious and planet-friendly food. These programs will introduce kids to plant-centric diets, which is what motivated the Canadian research team to study the implications.

Major toddler and baby food company Gerber is also shifting to a plant-based selection. The company just released its first toddler snack selection that uses plant protein, catering to nearly 81 percent of households that purchase plant-based proteins. For kids, eating plant-based might be instinctual. A study found that kids are less inclined to eat meat than their parents, suggesting that kids don’t see farm animals as meat.

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