Background: Plant-based diets (PBDs) are increasingly recommended for human and planetary health. However, comprehensive evidence on the health effects of PBDs in children remains incomplete, particularly in vegans.
Objectives: To quantify differences in body composition, cardiovascular risk, and micronutrient status of vegetarian and vegan children relative to omnivores and to estimate prevalence of abnormal micronutrient and cholesterol status in each group.
Methods: In a cross-sectional study, Polish children aged 5-10 y (63 vegetarian, 52 vegan, 72 matched omnivores) were assessed using anthropometry, deuterium dilution, DXA, and carotid ultrasound. Fasting blood samples, dietary intake, and accelerometry data were collected.
Results: All results are reported relative to omnivores. Vegetarians had lower gluteofemoral adiposity but similar total fat and lean mass. Vegans had lower fat indices in all regions but similar lean mass. Both groups had lower bone mineral content (BMC). The difference for vegetarians attenuated after accounting for body size but remained in vegans (total body minus the head: -3.7%; 95% CI: -7.0, -0.4; lumbar spine: -5.6%; 95% CI: -10.6, -0.5). Vegetarians had lower total cholesterol, HDL, and serum B-12 and 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D] without supplementation but higher glucose, VLDL, and triglycerides. Vegans were shorter and had lower total LDL (-24 mg/dL; 95% CI: -35.2, -12.9) and HDL (-12.2 mg/dL; 95% CI: -17.3, -7.1), high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, iron status, and serum B-12 (-217.6 pmol/L; 95% CI: -305.7, -129.5) and 25(OH)D without supplementation but higher homocysteine and mean corpuscular volume. Vitamin B-12 deficiency, iron-deficiency anemia, low ferritin, and low HDL were more prevalent in vegans, who also had the lowest prevalence of high LDL. Supplementation resolved low B-12 and 25(OH)D concentrations.
Conclusions: Vegan diets were associated with a healthier cardiovascular risk profile but also with increased risk of nutritional deficiencies and lower BMC and height. Vegetarians showed less pronounced nutritional deficiencies but, unexpectedly, a less favorable cardiometabolic risk profile. Further research may help maximize the benefits of PBDs in children.
Keywords: bone mineral content; cardiovascular risk; iron deficiency; stature; vegan children; vegetarian children; vitamin B-12 deficiency; vitamin D deficiency.
© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Nutrition.