A healthy, nutritious diet is essential for the physical and mental well-being of your growing child. Adequate dietary consumption of macro nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, and fat as well as vitamins and minerals such as iron, vitamin B12, and calcium are all required for proper childhood development (Melina et al., 2016).
Is a vegetarian diet superior to other diets in providing your child with the correct nutrition they need in order to grow and stay healthy?
In this article we explain (in plain English!) the conclusions of scientific studies that have looked at childhood vegetarianism (both the drawbacks and benefits).
Vegetarian diets consist of plant-based foods rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, while avoiding red meat, processed meat products, refined foods, and sweets.
There are several variations of a vegetarian diet:
Drawbacks of Childhood Vegetarianism
Childhood vegetarianism could lead to nutrient deficiencies such as vitamin B12, iron, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin D. According to evidence found in the book, Pediatric Nutrition in Practice “Children are at greater risk of nutritional deficiencies if very restricted vegetarian diets are followed; Vegans are at risk of vitamin B12, iron, and calcium deficiency” (Koletzko et al., 2015).
Benefits of Childhood Vegetarianism
Despite the drawbacks of childhood vegetarianism covered in the previous section, numerous studies have reported the many health benefits of a vegetarian childhood.
In the sections that follow we highlight studies that have linked childhood vegetarianism with health benefits such as:
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics “An appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes” (Melina et al., 2016).
Adhering to a vegetarian diet from childhood is advantageous and is associated with the adoption of healthy eating habits that continue into adulthood “Research has highlighted nutritional advantages to vegetarian diets and has indicated that this style of eating can lead to lifelong healthy eating habits when adopted at a young age” (Dunham & Kollar, 2006).
Nutritional Status, Growth and Physical Fitness
Childhood vegetarianism is associated with satisfactory nutritional status, growth and physical fitness.
An academic paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Hebbelinck et al. (1999) studied the growth, development, and physical fitness of Flemish Vegetarian children, they found that vegetarian children had the same physical fitness and growth factors as non-vegetarian children “The vegetarian children were as physically fit as the reference group; The growth and maturation status of the vegetarian population were within the normal range”.
Researchers, Yin et al. (2008) from the Department of Early Childhood development and Education at Chaoyang University of Technology reported that vegetarian diets provided adequate nutrition and supported normal growth of children “Our vegetarian and omnivorous preschool children had normal growth and adequate nutritional status”.
Reduced Risk of Obesity
Childhood vegetarianism may reduce the risk of childhood obesity.
A scientific paper published in the Nutrition Journal, investigated the link between obesity risk and the consumption of certain foods, they found that children who consumed plant-based foods such as nuts, grains, and vegetables were at less risk of being overweight “The regular intake of specific plant foods may prevent overweight among children and adolescents” and “higher vegetable consumption was associated with 37 % lower odds of being overweight” (Matthews et al., 2011).
Another paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reported the strong link between childhood vegetarianism and reduced frequency of obesity “plant-based diet seems to be a sensible approach for the prevention of obesity in children; vegetarian diets are associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) and a lower prevalence of obesity in adults and children” (Sabate & Wien, 2010).
According to Segovia-Siapco et al. (2018), “Vegetarian children are relatively leaner and less susceptible to cardio-metabolic risks compared to their non-vegetarian counterparts”.
Reduced Risk of Diabetes
A plant-based diet may lower the risk of your child developing type 2 diabetes.
According to Satija et al., (2016), a healthful plant-based diet is linked to a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes “Our study suggests that plant-based diets, especially when rich in high-quality plant foods, are associated with substantially lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes; those most adherent to the healthful plant-based dietary index had a 34% lower risk of developing diabetes compared with those least adherent” (McMacken & Shah, 2017).
Lowered Blood Pressure
Childhood vegetarianism may have a blood pressure lowering effect.
According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, adherence to a plant-based diet may lower blood pressure in adolescents “adolescents who consume more fruit have lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, while those who regularly consume vegetables and pulses also had lower levels of systolic pressure” (Damasceno et al., 2011).
Protective Effect Against Allergies
Childhood vegetarianism which consists of a diet predominantly rich in antioxidants may provide a protective effect against allergic diseases.
A study published in the journal, Frontiers in Pediatrics, reported a reduced risk of childhood allergies such as asthma and wheezing when children followed a Mediterranean diet “Adherence to Mediterranean Diet by children themselves seems to have a protective effect on asthma/wheezing symptoms” (Castro-Rodriguez & Garcia-Marcos, 2017).
Scientists from the Institute of Environmental Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden looked at the effect of consumption of diets high in antioxidants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes) at 8 years of age and the risk of developing asthma, and sensitization to inhalant allergens during the age of 8 and 16 years “These findings indicate that implementing an antioxidant-rich diet in childhood may contribute to the prevention of allergic disease” (Gref et al., 2017).
Reduce Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Childhood vegetarianism may provide a protective and beneficial impact to your child’s heart health.
A study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, reported a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in children who followed a plant-based diet “Plant-based and the American Heart Association diets in both children and adults demonstrated potentially beneficial changes from baseline in risk factors for CVD” (Macknin et al., 2015).
Scientists from the Cardiovascular Risk and Nutrition Research Group (CARIN) found a positive link between elements contained in a plant-based diet on cardiovascular health in children and adolescents “vitamin D, fiber, mono-and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, dairy, fruits and vegetables were positively linked to cardiovascular health” (Funtikova et al., 2015).
Mental Health and Cognition
Childhood vegetarianism may be beneficial to your child’s mental well-being.
Scientists from the University of Grenada found a positive link between a vegetarian diet and reduced depression and cognitive decline in adolescents “higher adherence to Mediterranean diet is associated with higher intake of dietary polyphenols, which in turn are inversely associated with depression and cognitive decline. Higher polyphenol intake decreases systematic inflammation and the level of oxidative stress, therefore, possibly improving cognitive function” (Chacón-Cuberos et al., 2018).
A plant-based diet may have a positive effect on the academic performance of your child.
Scientists from the University of Grenada found a positive link between a vegetarian diet and academic performance in adolescents “Adolescents who reported a greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet reported higher scores for organizational strategies, self-regulation, critical thinking, effort, study habits and intrinsically oriented goals, in addition to lower anxiety linked to academic contexts” (Chacón-Cuberos et al., 2018).
Scientific evidence supports the fact that a vegetarian diet provides numerous benefits to the health of your child, including:
A well-planned, balanced vegetarian diet rich in healthful plant-based foods such as wholegrains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds can provide your child with the nutrition their bodies need to grow and stay healthy during their formative years, and can have a lasting impact on their health and eating habits into adulthood.
Following a vegetarian diet from a young age may prevent detrimental health conditions in adulthood “prevention of obesity in childhood and adolescence by the adoption of a vegetarian diet will subsequently decrease a broad range of adverse health effects in adulthood” (Sabate & Wien, 2010).
To conclude, a well-planned, varied and balanced vegetarian diet can provide many positive benefits for your child. It is however important to consult with your primary physician to monitor for deficiencies and supplement where necessary.
Childhood Vegetarianism Studies
Benefits of Childhood Vegetarianism