A vegetarian diet isn’t just beneficial for adults—it can be healthy for kids, too. New research in Pediatrics shows that children on a plant-based diet had similar growth and nutrition metrics compared to those who ate meat. 

They did find, however, that children eating a vegetarian diet had higher odds of being underweight—something the researchers say parents should know when planning meals. 

The lowdown on raising vegetarian kids

The study was centered on 8,907 Canadian children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years old. The team collected data from 2008 to 2019.

“On average, children with a vegetarian diet in this study seem to have similar growth and nutrition as children without vegetarian diet. This is great news for the increasing number of parents who are choosing vegetarian diets for children,” Jonathon Maguire, MD, FRCPC, MSc, lead author of the study and a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto, tells Motherly. 

“However, there was a small increase in underweight, which says to me that we need to be thoughtful about vegetarian diets for children who are having difficulty with weight gain,” he adds.

Vegetarian kids had a similar mean body mass index (BMI), height, iron, vitamin D and cholesterol levels compared to their meat-eating counterparts, the authors say.

Related: Raising a vegetarian baby

There was no link between the diets and being overweight or obese, but again, there was a risk for being underweight. That can be a sign that a diet doesn’t meet the child’s nutritional needs, so the authors stress that parents talk to their healthcare providers about proper nutrition. 

One limit of the study is that the authors didn’t look at what, exactly, the kids were eating. Perhaps knowing the quality of the diet could lead to stronger correlations.

Plant-based eating outcomes in kids

In the past, findings on vegetarian (and vegan) eating have been mixed in terms of growth outcomes and nutritional adequacy. 

“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,” Dr. Maguire says. 

“However, few studies have evaluated the impact of vegetarian diets on childhood growth and nutritional status. Vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children,” he adds.

Related: 15 vegetarian school lunch ideas that kids will gobble up

Some parents who avoid animal foods may struggle to adequately ensure the child gets missing nutrients that can come from meat, like iron, calcium and B12, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, a California-based dietitian who specializes in plant-based eating, tells Motherly.

“There is often this attitude that the body will find a way to get its nutrients, but that’s simply not true,” she says. “However, plant-based diets—if planned well—can meet the needs of children of all ages and even have health bonuses.”

Research shows that plant-based kids can have lower risks of childhood obesity and biomarkers of chronic disease even during childhood, and this benefit extends to their adult life, Palmer points out.

Meal planning for kids’ plant-based eating 

Here are a few of Palmer’s tips to make sure your child is receiving proper nutrition:

  • Don’t nix refined grains. “Unlike the recommendations for adults, plant-based kids may need to have more refined foods, as the amount of bulk and fiber in a plant-based diet based solely on whole plant foods—grains, beans, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds—can fill them up too quickly and they may have a hard time getting in enough calories,” Palmer explains. “It’s OK to have more refined foods, such as some of the grains being refined, more oils and fats in the diet. It’s also important to have good sources of protein at each meal, including tofu, nuts, seeds, peanuts and pulses,” she says.
  • Be choosy with milk. Pick a nutrient-rich plant milk, Palmer says. She recommends a fortified (calcium, vitamin D) soy milk for children. 
  • Supplement when needed. Kids who don't eat meat should also take certain supplements, especially B12. Make sure they get enough calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc and iodine through diet, fortified foods and supplements, if needed. Omega-3 fatty acids (often found in fatty fish or fortified cow's milk) are essential for their brains, so include sources of plant-based omega 3 (ALA), and in addition, supplements of long-chain DHA/EPA. 

Palmer says supplements must be adjusted for age needs, so talking to a doctor or nutritionist can help. “Choose one who is familiar with plant-based diets,” she adds.

The verdict on vegetarian eating

Most parents who choose vegetarian diets for children have experience with vegetarian diets themselves. “So they make wise decisions for their children. When unsure, most parents seek help from their healthcare providers,” Dr. Maguire says.

Despite the positive results, Dr. Maguire says they have been met with skepticism. “There still seems to be a view that there is something not right about vegetarian diets for children,” he says. But data from his group and others' show that most children on vegetarian diets are doing fine.  

“However, I think we need to be thoughtful about vegetarian diets when it comes to children with underweight who are struggling with gaining weight appropriately,” Dr. Maguire warns. 

Sources

Elliott LJ, Keown-Stoneman CD, Birken CS, Jenkins DJ, Borkhoff CM, Maguire JL, TARGet KIDS! COLLABORATION. Vegetarian Diet, Growth, and Nutrition in Early Childhood: A Longitudinal Cohort Study. Pediatrics. 2022 May. doi:10.1542/peds.2021-052598

Hackett A, Nathan I. Is a Vegetarian Diet Adequate for Children?. Nutrition and Health. 1998;12(3):189-195. doi:10.1177/026010609801200304

Macknin M, Stegmeier N, Thomas A, Worley S, Li L, Hazen SL, Tang WW. Three healthy eating patterns and cardiovascular disease risk markers in 9 to 18 year olds with body mass index> 95%: a randomized trial. Clinical Pediatrics. 2021 Oct;60(11-12):474-84. doi:10.1177/00099228211044841

O'Connell J, et al. Growth of Vegetarian Children: The Farm Study. Pediatrics. 1989. doi:10.1542/peds.84.3.475

Schürmann S, Kersting M, Alexy U. Vegetarian diets in children: a systematic review. European Journal of Nutrition. 2017 Aug;56(5):1797-817.

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Featured experts

Dr. Jonathon Maguire, MD, FRCPC, MSc, lead author of the study and a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto

Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, a California-based dietitian specializing in plant-based diets