Pros and cons to vegan diets for children, detailed new study finds
A new cross-sectional study is offering novel insights into the nutritional, cardiovascular and growth differences between vegan, vegetarian and meat-eating children. The research is the first to rigorously investigate these dietary influences in five to 10-year-old children, finding vegans have healthier cardiovascular profiles but are shorter in height and display bone mineral deficiencies.
The new research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, set out to explore an understudied topic – the influence of vegetarian and vegan diets on children. Jonathan Wells, a researcher leading the project from University College London, says there is scant and incomplete data on the health effects of plant-based diets on children.
“… until now research into the health impact of these diets on children has been largely limited to assessments of height and weight and conducted only in vegetarian children,” says Wells. “Our study provides a substantial insight into the health outcomes in children following vegetarian and vegan diets.”
The study looked at 187 healthy children aged between five and 10 years. About 60 vegetarians, 52 vegans and 72 omnivores were included and the average duration of dietary intervention was five years. The omnivore control group was selected to be demographically similar to the vegetarian and vegan participants.
The findings revealed the vegan cohort of children had a significantly better cardiovascular profile when compared to both the vegetarian and omnivore children. A vegan diet particularly led to 25 percent lower levels of low-density lipoproteins compared to the meat-eaters.
However, the cardiovascular profile of the vegetarian children was unexpectedly closer to what was seen in the omnivore children. Higher average fasting glucose, VLDL cholesterol, and triglycerides were all detected in the vegetarian cohort compared to the vegan children, surprising the researchers.
“We were initially surprised by the poor cardiovascular health profile of the vegetarian children, but their dietary data showed that they were eating a relatively processed type of plant-based diet, with less healthy levels of fiber and sugars compared to the vegans,” explains Małgorzata Desmond, first author on the study. “So, we are learning that just eating plant-based diets is no guarantee of health, we still need to select healthy foods.”
On the negative side of the coin the research found vegan children were on average around an inch (3 cm) shorter than other children, more likely to be deficient in vitamin B-12, and had between four and six percent lower bone mineral content.
“… the vegans had higher intakes of nutrients that indicated an ‘unprocessed’ type of plant-based diet, which is in turn linked to lower body fat and better cardiovascular risk profile,” notes Desmond. “On the other hand, their lower intakes of protein, calcium, and vitamins B12 and D may explain their less favorable bone mineral and serum vitamin concentrations.”
The researchers do clearly state many of the nutritional deficiencies seen in the vegan cohort may be managed with effective supplementation. Further study is needed to ascertain whether there is a causal link between vegan diets and growth impairment in children but the researchers do note it is unclear whether these height differences would persist into adulthood, or even have any broader implications for long-term health.
Wells says his research team supports the increasing global shift to plant-based diets, not only from a perspective of animal welfare but also to reduce the impact of mass meat production on the environment. He suggests the key takeaway from this new study is the need for improved nutritional education for those eating plant-based diets.
“Our research shows that we need to provide more advice to the public as to how they can eat healthily on plant-based diets,” says Wells. “This is particularly relevant for children, as they may have higher nutrient needs while they are growing. We aim to conduct further research, to help maximize the health benefits of plant-based diets in children.”
The new study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Source: University College London