“Nutrient Density is Key”: A Look at Plant-Based Food Intake in Children

Posted on Thursday, April 4th, 2024

Written by Amanda Ball

Toddler eating yogurt

Plant-based foods are widely touted for their health benefits, and many dietary guidelines now promote their consumption. But how much of our diet actually comes from plants? While neither plant- nor animal-based foods are inherently better than the other, they have markedly different nutrient make-ups, which makes this important to understand.

As both a nutrition professor and a registered dietitian, Dr. Alison Duncan of the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences was curious about how the current dietary guidance in Canada is translated to the tables and plates of its youngest citizens. Duncan and colleagues recently set out to investigate the consumption of plant-based food in preschool-aged children.

Their study is one of only a few to explore this topic in children rather than adults. And yet, the preschool period between two and five years of age is a vital timeframe during growth and development. It is also an important nutritional milestone, as it is when new foods are introduced, and when children begin to develop preferences that will persist for years to come.

“The dietary habits established in young childhood can persist into adulthood and be associated with long-term health outcomes,” notes Duncan.

It’s widely accepted that plant-derived foods can pack a nutritional punch, delivering higher dietary fiber, micronutrients, and unsaturated fat. But not all plant-based foods are created equal, and there is a fairly broad range of “healthful” to “less healthful” options. For example, some legumes are a complete protein, while sugary drinks contain a significantly lower amount of nutrients. Thus, understanding the quality of plant-based foods – rather than simply the quantity – is critical to assess overall diet quality. 

Duncan carried out the project as part of the Guelph Family Health Study, a flagship long-term study at the University of Guelph that is looking at ways to promote healthy lifestyles in families with young children. In particular, the Guelph Family Health Study studies the impacts of home-based lifestyle interventions on obesity prevention in families with young children. In total, Duncan’s team looked at the diet records of over 280 children and assessed the overall intake of plant-based foods, as well as the intake of “healthful” and “less healthful” options.

A common trend in the data was that dairy, fruit, and refined grains made up the majority of this age group’s diet, regardless of their overall intake of plant-based food. Interestingly, while children who had the highest overall plant food consumption had higher than average intake of several beneficial nutrients (e.g., fiber, folate, iron and magnesium), they also had lower than average intake of others (e.g., protein, vitamin D and calcium).

The results highlight the importance of including a diversity of healthy foods in children’s diets to ensure they are consuming the nutrients they need, and to foster lifelong healthy eating habits.

The researchers say that the outcomes of the study are relevant at multiple levels, from the regulatory level, where dietary guidances are determined, to the family and school level, where food is offered and served. They hope that the study will also aid in increasing awareness of the importance of incorporating more plant foods into the diet.

“A key takeaway is that plant-based foods are a great opportunity for children to increase their nutrient intake. However, choosing the most nutrient-dense plant-based foods is the way to go,” says Duncan.

This study was funded by the Health for Life Initiative at the University of Guelph and included a partnership with the Guelph Family Health Study, from which the data was collected.

Read the full study in the journal Nutrients.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.

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