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:

  • Lacto-vegetarians allow the consumption of low-fat dairy products
  • Ovo-vegetarians allow the consumption of eggs
  • Pescatarians allow the consumption of fish
  • Pollotarians allow lean white meat such as chicken to be consumed.

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:

  • Reduced incidence of obesity
  • Reduced risk of allergies
  • Prevention of cardiovascular disease
  • Improved mental health
  • Improved academic status
  • Improved physical fitness

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).

Academic Performance

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).

Wrapping Up

Scientific evidence supports the fact that a vegetarian diet provides numerous benefits to the health of your child, including:

  • Reduced risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and allergies
  • Improved mental health, academic performance, and physical fitness

 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.

References

  • Castro-Rodriguez, J. A., & Garcia-Marcos, L. (2017). What are the effects of a Mediterranean diet on allergies and asthma in children?. Frontiers in pediatrics, 5, 72.
  • Chacón-Cuberos, R., Zurita-Ortega, F., Martínez-Martínez, A., Olmedo-Moreno, E. M., & Castro-Sánchez, M. (2018). Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is related to healthy habits, learning processes, and academic achievement in adolescents: a cross-sectional study. Nutrients, 10(11), 1566
  • Damasceno, M. M., de Araújo, M. F., Freire de Freitas, R. W., de Almeida, P. C., & Zanetti, M. L. (2011). The association between blood pressure in adolescents and the consumption of fruits, vegetables and fruit juice–an exploratory study. Journal of clinical nursing, 20(11‐12), 1553-1560.
  • Dunham, L., & Kollar, L. M. (2006). Vegetarian eating for children and adolescents. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 20(1), 27-34.
  • Funtikova, A. N., Navarro, E., Bawaked, R. A., Fíto, M., & Schröder, H. (2015). Impact of diet on cardiometabolic health in children and adolescents. Nutrition journal, 14(1), 1-11.
  • Gorczyca, D., Paściak, M., Szponar, B., Gamian, A., & Jankowski, A. (2011). An impact of the diet on serum fatty acid and lipid profiles in Polish vegetarian children and children with allergy. European journal of clinical nutrition, 65(2), 191-195.
  • Gref, A., Rautiainen, S., Gruzieva, O., Håkansson, N., Kull, I., Pershagen, G., ... & Bergström, A. (2017). Dietary total antioxidant capacity in early school age and subsequent allergic disease. Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 47(6), 751-759.
  • Hebbelinck, M., Clarys, P., & De Malsche, A. (1999). Growth, development, and physical fitness of Flemish vegetarian children, adolescents, and young adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 70(3), 579s-585s.
  • Koletzko, B., Bhatia, J., Bhutta, Z. A., Cooper, P., Makrides, M., Uauy, R., & Wang, W. (Eds.). (2015). Pediatric nutrition in practice. Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers.
  • Macknin, M., Kong, T., Weier, A., Worley, S., Tang, A. S., Alkhouri, N., & Golubic, M. (2015). Plant-based, no-added-fat or American Heart Association diets: impact on cardiovascular risk in obese children with hypercholesterolemia and their parents. The Journal of pediatrics, 166(4), 953-959.
  • Matthews, V. L., Wien, M., & Sabaté, J. (2011). The risk of child and adolescent overweight is related to types of food consumed. Nutrition Journal, 10(1), 1-7.
  • Sabate, J., & Wien, M. (2010). Vegetarian diets and childhood obesity prevention. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 91(5), 1525S-1529S.
  • Satija, A., Bhupathiraju, S. N., Rimm, E. B., Spiegelman, D., Chiuve, S. E., Borgi, L., ... & Hu, F. B. (2016). Plant-based dietary patterns and incidence of type 2 diabetes in US men and women: results from three prospective cohort studies. PLoS medicine, 13(6), e1002039.
  • Segovia-Siapco, G., Jung, S., & Sabaté, J. (2018). Vegetarian Diets and Pediatric Obesity. In Pediatric Obesity (pp. 287-303). Humana Press, Cham.
  • Yen, C. E., Yen, C. H., Huang, M. C., Cheng, C. H., & Huang, Y. C. (2008). Dietary intake and nutritional status of vegetarian and omnivorous preschool children and their parents in Taiwan. Nutrition research, 28(7), 430-436.

Childhood Vegetarianism Studies

Benefits of Childhood Vegetarianism

Date

Name of Paper

Journal Name

Link to Paper

2021

Risks and benefits of vegan and vegetarian diets in children

Proceedings of The Nutrition Society

2021

The overall plant-based diet index during pregnancy and risk of gestational diabetes mellitus: a prospective cohort study in China

British Journal of Nutrition

2020

Vegetarian diet in children and adolescents: a health benefit

Archives de Pédiatrie

2019

Pediatric Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Pediatric Annals

2019

Health Effects of a Vegan Diet and Pediatric Cancer Prevention

PhD Dissertation, Liberty University

2018

Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet Is Related to Healthy Habits, Learning Processes, and Academic Achievement in Adolescents: A Cross-Sectional Study

Nutrients

2018

Anti-Inflammatory and Pro-Inflammatory Adipokine Profiles in Children on Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diets

Nutrients

2017

Vegetarian Diets and Pediatric Obesity

Book: Pediatric Obesity

2017

Pediatric Obesity: Etiology, Pathogenesis and Treatment

Book: Pediatric Obesity

2017

Time for Change: Benefit of Plant based diet

Canadian Family Physician

2017

Dietary total antioxidant capacity in early school age and subsequent allergic disease

Clinical and Experimental Allergy

2017

What Are the Effects of a Mediterranean Diet on Allergies and Asthma in Children?

Frontiers in Pediatrics

2014

Impact of diet on cardiometabolic health in children and adolescents

Nutrition Journal

2015

Plant-Based, No-Added-Fat or American Heart Association Diets: Impact on Cardiovascular Risk in Obese Children with Hypercholesterolemia and Their Parents

The Journal of Pediatrics

2011

An impact of the diet on serum fatty acid and lipid profiles in Polish vegetarian children and children with allergy

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition

2011

The association between blood pressure in adolescents and the consumption of fruits, vegetables and fruit juice – an exploratory study

Journal of Clinical Nursing

2011

The risk of child and adolescent overweight is related to types of food consumed

Nutrition Journal

2010

Impact of diet in shaping gut microbiota revealed by a comparative study in children from Europe and rural Africa

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA

2010

Vegetarian diets and childhood obesity prevention

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

2006

Vegetarian Eating for Children and Adolescents

Journal of Pediatric Health Care

2009

Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets

Journal of the American Dietetic Association

2009

Health benefits of dietary fiber

Nutrition Reviews

2009

Adolescent and Young Adult Vegetarianism: Better Dietary Intake and Weight Outcomes but Increased Risk of Disordered Eating Behaviors

Journal of the American Dietetic Association

2009

Plant foods and plant-based diets: protective against childhood obesity?

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

2008

Dietary intake and nutritional status of vegetarian and omnivorous preschool children and their parents in Taiwan

Nutrition Research

2008

Pediatric Nutrition in Practice

Diabetic Medicine

2007

Infants and children consuming atypical diets: Vegetarianism and macrobiotics

Pediatrics & Child Health

2001

Growth and nutrition of Chinese vegetarian children in Hong Kong

Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health

1999

Growth, development, and physical fitness of Flemish vegetarian children, adolescents, and young adults

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

1997

Adolescent Vegetarians A Behavioral Profile of a School-Based Population in Minnesota

Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine

About the Author Maurice Muise

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