Vegan diet is best at reducing heart disease risk in children

bowl of udon noodles
CC BY 2.0 sharyn morrow

A new study compares the effects of a vegan diet vs. the American Heart Association diet on obese children with high cholesterol. Plant-based, low-fat wins the day.

Obesity levels are very high among American youth. Over the past thirty years, the rate of obesity has doubled in children aged 6-11 and tripled in those aged 12-19. With it comes health problems and greater risk of stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Changing one’s diet, however, can go a long ways toward reducing those risks and maintaining a healthier body weight. It’s just a question of finding which diet is most effective – something that doctors at the Cleveland Clinic recently set out to find.

Michael Macklin, a staff pediatrician at the clinic, led a four-week study to compare the effects of the American Heart Association (AHA) diet against a plant-based, no-added-fat vegan diet. The results were published last week in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Dr. Macklin took 28 obese children with high cholesterol between the ages of 9 and 18, as well as one parent for each child. Half were put on the American Heart Association diet, which allowed them to eat whole and non-whole grains, vegetables, fruits, limited sodium, low-fat dairy, moderate amounts of lean meat and fish, and some plant oils. Less than 30 percent of total calories consumed came from animal fat, including no more than 7 percent from saturated fat. No more than 1500 mg of sodium and 300 mg of cholesterol were allowed daily.

The other half followed a vegan diet, which included whole grains and plants, with limited amounts of nuts and avocado, no added fat, and no animal products. Consumption of animal-based protein went from 42 grams to 2.24 grams daily, and percentage of fat-derived calories went from 18 percent to 3.6 percent.

At the end of four weeks, the children who followed the vegan diet already showed tremendous improvement in nine areas: body mass index, systolic blood pressure, weight, mid-arm circumference, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, insulin, myeloperoxidase and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (these latter two are common indicators for heart disease).

By contrast, those on the AHA diet showed improvement in only four areas: mid-arm circumference, waist circumference, weight, and myeloperoxidase.

These findings have led the researchers to believe that following a plant-based diet could protect obese children in the long run by reducing or reversing their risk of heart disease. Dr. Macklin commented:

“Cardiovascular disease begins in childhood. If we can see such significant improvements in a short four-week study, imagine the potential for improving long-term health into adulthood if a whole population of children began to eat these diets regularly.”

It’s not surprising it all begins with diet, and whether or not parents buy, prepare, and insist that their children eat healthy whole foods. One serious and persistent issue, though, is accessibility to those ingredients. Macklin’s team found that, while participants were able to manage for the duration of the study, they did have difficulty purchasing the food necessary for a plant-based diet. Perhaps if healthy food were more widely available, a greater number of U.S. children wouldn’t even become obese in the first place.

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