The health effects of growing up on a vegetarian or vegan diet

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A recent study on the effect of plant-based diets on children in Poland was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Findings suggest differences in cardiovascular health profiles, bone density and growth factors when comparing vegetarian, vegan and omnivorous diets.

Plant-based foods already dominate most omnivorous diets, yet trends in vegetarian and vegan lifestyles lead to increasing dominance of plant-based foods on our plates. The choices of consuming less products derived from animals are underpinned by a variety of reasons, from ethical to perceived improved human and environmental health. Such choices flow down from parent to child, but the research is limited on the health and development effects these diets have on our younger generations.

The present study explored the effect vegan and vegetarian diets had on growth, body composition and cardiovascular and nutritional metrics in children 5 to 10 years old, with the control being an omnivorous diet. A vegan diet was associated with a healthier cardiometabolic risk profile, but with increased risk of nutritional deficiencies, lower heights and lower bone mineral content. Vegetarian diets saw less pronounced nutrient deficiencies but a less favourable cardiometabolic risk profile.

Nutrient adequate vegetarian and vegan diets are possible for individuals who have the financial means to eat well, supplement where necessary and address risks of nutrient deficiencies. This study highlighted that supplementation to address nutrient deficiencies in Vitamin B12 and D is possible. Through doing so, individuals may see benefits by way of a healthier cardiovascular risk profile – reducing the risk of one of the deadlier diseases of the modern world. However, an alarming finding from the study was the low bone density associated with veganism. Increased risk of breaks and injuries and a less favourable health status when entering later life was highlighted by the authors.

Further research is required in the area of vegetarian and vegan diets and their health implications, especially in younger and elderly people to determine long term affects. As our knowledge in this area grows it will allow us to make more informed decisions on what a sustainable diet is: one that is both good for the planet, our health, and our children’s health.

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