Researchers have long been telling us that a heart-healthy diet can benefit children as well as adults. A new study shows that these health gains could occur as quickly as in a month.
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The study, published Feb. 12 in The Journal of Pediatrics, finds that children who eat a plant-based vegan diet or the American Heart Association diet can lose weight, lower their blood pressure and improve their cholesterol in four weeks.
Pediatrician Michael Macknin, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s, led the four-week study. He and a team of researchers studied the effects of both diets on 28 children with high cholesterol ranging in age from 9 to 18. One parent of each child also followed the assigned diet plan.
Those on the plant-based diet consumed plants and whole grains, with limited avocado and nuts, no added fat, and no animal products. After four weeks, results show children on the plant-based diet saw nine statistically significant beneficial changes, including drops in weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as two common markers of heart disease.
Those on the American Heart Association diet consumed fruits, vegetables, whole grains and non-whole grains, limited sodium, low-fat dairy, selected plant oils and lean meat and fish in moderation. These children experienced significant improvements in four measures, including weight, waist circumference, and one common marker of heart disease.
“This was only a four-week study and yet, there were all of these improvements in all of these markers that helped protect you against cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Macknin says.
Although health improvements were seen with both diets, the plant-based diet provided more benefit.
Improving access to good food
Evidence continues to mount in favor of plant-based diets for everyone, Dr. Macknin says, adding that more studies are needed.
“Cardiovascular disease begins in childhood. If we can see such significant improvements in a short four-week study, imagine the opportunity to improve long-term health into adulthood if a whole population of children began to eat these diets regularly,” Dr. Macknin says. “The potential is extraordinary.”
Children eating the plant-based diet reduced their daily consumption of animal protein from 42 grams to 2.24 grams. They also reduced their calories from fat to 18 percent and intake of saturated fat to 3.6 percent.
Children on the AHA diet ate less than 30 percent of their total calories from fat, less than 7 percent of calories from saturated fat, less than 1500 milligrams of sodium and less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol.
Most families in the study were able to follow these dietary guidelines for the four-week study, but researchers found they had difficulty purchasing the food necessary for a balanced plant-based diet, Dr. Macknin says.
“As a result, we know that if plant-based diets are to be widely used, we need to make access to plant-based, no-added-fat foods easier and more affordable,” he says.