New Study Shows Vegan Diet Reduces Heart Disease Risk in Kids
We think of our children as immune to certain diseases we associate with old age. We don’t expect them to get arthritis or to have a stroke. Yet, sadly, with childhood obesity on the rise, more and more of our children are at risk for heart disease. Just as type 2 (once called “adult onset”) diabetes has become commonplace among the youth of today, risk factors for heart disease are on the rise in younger and younger children. The good news is, you can turn it around, and it’s easier than you think.
Earlier this month a study came out in The Journal of Pediatrics showing just how powerful switching to a healthy diet is. Researchers wanted to evaluate how effective different diets were at reducing risk factors for heart disease in children. Many studies of this nature have been done on adults, but this one is specifically targeting precursors of heart disease in children, which I have mentioned before is an increasing concern, with 70% of obese 5-7 year old kids exhibiting at least one risk factor for heart disease.
The current mainstream guidelines for reducing heart disease risk are those put forth by the American Heart Association (AHA). While many doctors and individuals have long criticized their standards as being far from sufficiently rigorous, the AHA has been loathe to further restrict their recommended diet. Perhaps they are concerned that being too strict will frighten people away from keeping to the recommendations. But in the meantime, their diet is far from ideal. So, what exactly are the AHA recommendations?
Choose foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars and sweeteners. As part of a healthy diet, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish (preferably oily fish — at least twice per week), nuts, legumes and seeds. Also try eating some meals without meat. Select fat-free and low-fat dairy products and lean meats and poultry (skinless). Limit sugar-sweetened beverages.
On the AHA diet, which is definitely healthier than the average diet, kids did see their diets improve and become healthier. But how much healthier? 1/3 – 30% – of their calories were still coming from fats, although less than 7% of those calories came from harmful saturated fats. Because they reduced meat intake, daily cholesterol intake dropped to less than 300 mg/day. Sodium intake also dropped to 1,500 mg/day.
To determine if this diet is truly the ideal in reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease in children, researchers, led by Dr. Michael Macknin, tested both the AHA diet and an alternate vegan diet. He and his team of researchers selected 28 obese children between the ages of 9 and 18 to participate in the study, which ran for 4 weeks. They then randomly selected children to participate in one of the two diets. At least one parent of each child in the study was also required to stick to the diet. This makes it much easier for kids to stick to the diet, follow through with the study, and maintain a positive attitude. The addition of this provision is actually a good example of what I repeatedly have said: Lead your kids by example. If you want to inspire healthy kids, you need to also be eating a healthy diet! Participants in the study also attended two-hour educational nutrition information sessions once per week, which affirms again what I have repeatedly said: Kids need to be educated about how food affects their health so they will be motivated to make healthy decisions.
What was the vegan diet like? Children on the vegan diet were given plants and whole grains, although they limited their intake of fatty plant foods, like nuts and avocados. They were given no animal products and no added fat was used in food preparation.
As a result, and no doubt in spite of a bit of cheating and leniency, consumption of animal proteins dropped from an average 42 grams per day to just 2.24 grams per day. The percentage of calories from fat was just 18% (compared to 30% for the AHA diet), with only 3.6% coming from saturate fats (compared to 7% on the AHA diet). Clearly, the vegan diet is a dramatically healthier diet than the AHA guidelines, if we look just at nutritional intakes. (Of course not all nutritional values for foods were tested, but we can easily make an educated guess that those children on the vegan diet were consuming more vitamins and minerals, as their diets included more nutrient dense vegetable and whole grain ingredients.)
What were the results of the study?
Children on PB had 9 and children on AHA had 4 statistically significant (P < .05) beneficial changes from baseline (mean decreases): body mass index z-scorePB (−0.14), systolic blood pressurePB (−6.43 mm Hg), total cholesterolPB(−22.5 mg/dL), low-density lipoproteinPB (−13.14 mg/dL), high-sensitivity C-reactive proteinPB (−2.09 mg/L), insulinPB(−5.42 uU/mL), myeloperoxidasePB/AHA (−75.34/69.23 pmol/L), mid-arm circumferencePB/AHA (−2.02/−1.55 cm), weightPB/AHA (−3.05/−1.14 kg), and waist circumferenceAHA (−2.96 cm). Adults on PB and AHA had 7 and 2, respectively, statistically significant (P < .05) beneficial changes. The significant change favoring AHA was a 1% difference in children’s waist circumference. Difficulty shopping for food for the PB was the only statistically significant acceptability barrier.
In layman’s terms, this means that kids on the plant-based diet showed significant improvement in nine different categories: body mass index (BMI), systolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol), high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, insulin, myeloperoxidase, mid-arm circumference, weight, and waist circumference. High sensitivity C-reactive protein is one measure of inflammation in the body and is a major indicator of heart disease risk. Myeloperoxidase is an enzyme necessary for healthy body function, but in elevated levels is associated with risk for coronary artery disease,* to the point that high levels over a 13-year period was shown to have more than doubled the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.**
In contrast, children on the AHA diet showed statistically significant improvement in only four areas: mid-arm circumference, weight, waist circumference, and myeloperoxidase. Clearly, the vegan diet was more effective in reducing risk factors for heart disease. However, the AHA diet did show a 1% change in waist circumference, which shows it was good for losing weight in the right places. On the other hand, the vegan diet resulted in greater health benefits even if those benefits were more internal than external.
(If you are an adult reading this and want to reap the benefits, you can. Children’s bodies are more reactive to changes in their diet than adults, so they show more significant results more quickly, but adults also showed major benefits. On the plant based diet, adults benefits in seven of the risk factor areas, while on the AHA diet they benefited in two of the risk factor areas. If you put your child on one of these diets and you join him/her, you will also stand to gain – or, in this case, to lose! Haha!)
Dr. Macknin’s conclusion was:
As the number of obese children with high cholesterol continues to grow, we need to have effective lifestyle modifications to help them reverse their risk factors for heart disease.
We’ve known that plant-based diets are beneficial in adults in preventing and possibly reversing heart disease. This study shows that the same may be true in children too, though more studies are needed.
Of course this study was limited in scope, as not many children were tested. Also, the study ran only for four weeks. But just think about that! Statistically significant benefits in nine areas were found in children on a plant based diet in just four weeks! That’s such a short time. It is really amazing.
The one complaint participants on the low-fat vegan diet had was that food was expensive and difficult to find. It does not need to be this way. Of course if you are buying convenience foods, it will be more of a challenge and more expensive. Processed foods in the vegan market are niche, and fat-free vegan foods even more so. I would suggest that more foods be made at home and less processed foods consumed, to take a page out of the paleo diet book.
We shop in bulk at farmer’s markets, often going once a week to stock up on fruits and vegetables. I then use these to make healthy meals for my family. Perhaps tomorrow I will post a recipe for an easy fat-free vegan tomato soup. I often make big batches of this comfort food when tomatoes are in season and freeze containers for use later in the year. I find prices in farmer’s markets are 30%-50% lower than in supermarkets, I can support local farmers directly, and the food is more fresh. On my last trip to the farmer’s market, I got 10 kg (22 lb) organic grapes for $10! In the US, some farmer’s markets are even offering to double food stamps, so even people on food stamps can take advantage of the findings in this fantastic study.
With childhood obesity on the rise, we as parents have the power to combat it. It’s not as hard as it might seem – even if you cut back and begin to follow the AHA guidelines, your child will benefit. Go gradually and slowly transition to a more plant-based diet. Even I cannot claim to be vegan (we eat a small amount of dairy and a tiny amount of fish once a week, but lots and lots of eggs), but take the steps you can in the right direction and it will only benefit you and your kids. I know if my kids showed one of these risk factors for heart disease, or showed signs of obesity, I would not hesitate for a moment to switch to an even healthier diet than the one we are currently on. We all have to start somewhere! Go ahead, take the plunge – or at least the first step – in the vegan direction!
*Zhang R, Brennan ML, Fu X, Aviles RJ, Pearce GL, Penn MS, Topol EJ, Sprecher DL, Hazen SL (November 2001). “Association between myeloperoxidase levels and risk of coronary artery disease”. JAMA 286 (17): 2136–42.doi:10.1001/jama.286.17.2136
**Heslop CL, Frohlich JJ, Hill JS (March 2010). “Myeloperoxidase and C-reactive protein have combined utility for long-term prediction of cardiovascular mortality after coronary angiography”. J. Am. Coll. Cardiol. 55 (11): 1102–9.doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2009.11.050