A low-fat, plant-based vegan diet was found to be effective in reducing a number of risk factors linked to heart disease in obese children, such as body mass index and total cholesterol.
Childhood obesity is a major problem in the US. Over the last 3 decades, the rate of obesity has more than doubled in children aged 6-11 years and quadrupled in adolescents aged 12-19.
As well as raising the risk of obesity later in life, children and adolescents who are obese have greater risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a population-based study found 70% of obese 5-17-year-olds have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
In order to help reduce such risks, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend eating a diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry and nuts, while red meat and sugary foods and drinks should be consumed in moderation.
But the researchers of this latest study, led by Dr. Michael Macknin, a staff pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children's, OH, suggest a plant-based diet low in fat may be more effective for lowering the risk of heart disease in children and adolescents.
Participants randomized to either plant-based or AHA diets
To reach their findings, Dr. Macknin and his team enrolled 28 obese children and adolescents aged 9-18 years to the study. All participants had high cholesterol levels - a risk factor for heart disease.
The subjects were randomized to follow either the AHA diet or a plant-based diet for 4 weeks, and one parent of each child also followed the diet plan their child was assigned to.
The participants who followed the plant-based diet ate plants and whole grains, but consumed no added fat and no animal products. Consumption of avocado and nuts was limited. This reduced their intake of animal protein from 42 g a day to 2.24 g a day, while their percentage of calories from fat and saturated fat fell to 18% and 3.6%, respectively.
Those who followed the AHA diet consumed less than 30% of their total daily calories from fat and less than 7% of their total daily calories from saturated fat. They also consumed less than 1,500 mg of sodium and less than 300 mg of cholesterol each day.
In addition to their diets, the participants attended weekly 2-hour nutrition education sessions.
Plant-based diet more effective for reducing heart disease
At the end of the 4-week diet plans, the researchers found the children and adolescents who followed the plant-based diet showed major improvements in body mass index (BMI), weight, mid-arm circumference, systolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, and insulin.
They also showed improvements in myeloperoxidase and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein - which the researchers say are two common indicators of heart disease.
While still beneficial, those who followed the AHA diet only showed improvements in weight, waist circumference, mid-arm circumference and myeloperoxidase, indicating that the plant-based diet was more effective.
Commenting on the team's findings, Dr. Macknin says:
"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."
Dr. Macknin notes that the study participants only followed the plant-based diet for 4 weeks, but significant health benefits were seen in that short period. "[...] Imagine the potential for improving long-term health into adulthood if a whole population of children began to eat these diets regularly," he adds.
Though the majority of the children, adolescents and their parents were able to follow the plant-based diet for the 4-week study period, Dr. Macknin notes that they found purchasing the required food challenging; it was difficult to find and highly priced. This could pose problems for families wanting to follow the diet for longer periods.
"So we know that plant-based diets are effective, but if they are to be widely used, we need to make access to plant-based, no-added-fat foods easier and more affordable," says Dr. Macknin.
Medical News Today recently reported on a study published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, in which experts claim obesity cannot be treated with a healthy diet and exercise alone.