Research checks question newly published studies and how they are reported in the media. The analysis is undertaken by one or more academics not included in the study, and reviewed by another, to make sure it is accurate.
Diets that exclude meat and fish (vegetarian) or all animal products including milk and eggs (vegans) are becoming increasingly popular for health, environmental and ethical reasons.
Past research in adults has linked vegetarian and vegan diets to a reduced risk of heart disease, but a greater risk of fractures, caused by low calcium intake. But the impact on children has not been assessed, until a new study is published this week.
The researchers found one link between shorter heights and lower bone mineral content in vegan children, compared to those who eat meat. But they did not show vegan diet caused Change. Nor can they say that the differences will last until adulthood.
How was the study conducted?
The paper, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined changes in children aged five to ten in Poland.
They observed 187 healthy children between 2014 and 2016 who had been on their respective diets for at least a year: 72 children were omnivorous (meat eaters), 63 were vegetarians and 52 were vegans.
The research team looked at children’s nutritional intake, body composition and cardiovascular risk – how likely they were to have heart disease or stroke in the future.
The study was observational, so the researchers made no changes to the diets of the children. They recruited children who were already eating these diets.
Specifically, it was a kind of observational study called a cross-sectional study. They looked at children’s diets, growth and cardiovascular risk factors at some point.
The research team ensured that children in the vegan and vegetarian group were similar to children in the omnipresence group, in factors influencing growth and cardiovascular risk factors. These include sex, age, parental smoking, parental education, clinical characteristics of their mother’s pregnancy, and, most importantly, height of their parents.
Read more: Are there any health implications for raising your child as a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian?
What did the researchers find?
The researchers found that compared to children on the omnivorous diet, children on the vegan diet had a healthier cardiovascular risk profile, with 25% lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or unhealthy cholesterol).
However, vegan children had an increased risk of nutritional deficiencies. They were more likely to have lower levels of vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D and iron in their diet.
Children on vegan diets had about 5% lower bone mineral content and were on average 3 cm shorter in height. This is important, as the higher the bone mineral content, the higher the bone mineral density.
This 5% difference is troubling, as people have a limited period of time at this age in which they can optimize the mineral density of their bones; 95% of bone mass is reached around the age of 20 years. The lowest bone density is associated with the highest rate of fractures in later life.
Vegetarians showed less pronounced nutritional deficiencies but, unexpectedly, a less favorable cardiovascular risk profile compared to meat eaters and vegans. The authors attributed this to a lower quality diet, with these children consuming more processed foods.
Is there a problem with the study?
Observational studies are able to tell us if something is related, not if a thing caused another. This study only tells us that there is a link between these diets and the results they looked at.
But in this study, there are reliable biological links between bone development and growth in children.
Calcium, vitamin D and protein are critical for bone development and growth. These nutrients may be lower in vegan diets, as they come mainly from animal products:
- calcium is found in dairy products
- Vitamin D, which we normally get from exposure to sunlight on our skin, is also found in animal foods, but in smaller amounts
- protein from plant foods is considered to have lower biological value than animal sources.
A single plant source of protein will not provide you with all the essential amino acids (protein blocks that your body is unable to make for itself) that are needed. Vegans need to make sure they eat a variety of herbs in order to get a good mix of all the essential amino acids.
So why didn’t the researchers conduct an interventional study and change the diets of the children?
First, it would be difficult to find children and their families who are willing to change their diets for a long period of time.
Second, it would be unethical to put children on a diet that could affect their growth and cardiovascular risk factors.
This study, conducted in Poland, is the only one that looks at growth and cardiovascular outcomes in vegan and vegetarian children.
A small study in children aged five to ten is not enough for the scientific community to say that these results are valid and we should act on them.
But it gives us clues about potential problems and what we can look at.
As the researchers showed, more observational studies are needed, and in different countries.
Read more: Have you gone vegan? Keep an eye on these 4 nutrients
So what does it mean for kids on vegan and vegetarian diets?
This does not mean that every child who follows these diets will have these nutritional and health benefits or problems. And we also can not say whether these problems will continue until adulthood.
But it highlights the potential dangers that health practitioners and parents should be aware of. And it is a reminder either to find suitable substitutes that fit the philosophy of the family diet, or to prescribe supplements if a deficiency is diagnosed through a blood test.
In particular, parents and caregivers need to be careful that their children maintain a good intake of protein from a variety of vegan sources (beans, lentils, nuts) and calcium (from plant milk with calcium).
Whether you are following a vegan, vegetarian diet or eating meat, you still need to make sure the diet is balanced across all food groups.
The study is also a reminder to minimize the intake of processed foods from your family which are rich in salt, sugar and saturated fats, which are risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
If you are concerned about your children’s diet, talk to your doctor or an accredited dietitian, who can assess their growth and diet. – Evangeline Mantzioris
Blind peer review
The reviewer has provided an accurate assessment of the research paper.
The study highlights the importance of meal planning to optimize food and nutrient intake for children whose usual diet pattern is vegan or vegetarian, and the need for regular use of fortified foods and / or dietary supplements with vitamin B12. and vitamin D and potentially calcium and iron, especially for vegans.
However, the results of the study may be a “best case scenario”, given that most of the participating families were educated and thus are likely to invest more in family meal planning. It is possible that other families may have less healthy dietary patterns, and therefore larger nutritional deficits.
Together with the reviewer’s outstanding results on bone mineral content and height, as well as iron and cholesterol levels, this study confirms both the potential risks and benefits associated with vegan and vegetarian diets in children.
A key message is that families following a plant-based diet need more advice and support to optimize food and nutrient intake, as well as the health and well-being of their children’s diet. – Clare Collins
Read more: Pregnant women and babies can be vegan, but careful nutrition planning is essential