Study Shows Plant-Based Diets Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease in Overweight Kids

Mother cutting cantaloupe for kids

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Key Takeaways

  • Eating a diet rich in plants reduces the risk of obesity and its related health risks in children.
  • One in five children is affected by obesity.
  • Starting healthy eating habits early can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other health issues in adulthood.

Healthy eating from the start can help protect children against cardiovascular disease later in life. A new study shows how a plant-based diet with no added fats can reverse obesity in children, thereby lowering their risks for cardiovascular disease and other health problems.

Roughly 20% of American children today have a weight that classifies them as obese. Childhood obesity can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Most children weighing in the obese range will stay that way as adults, where they face an increased risk of various health problems, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

According to the study, childhood obesity is both reversible and preventable by following certain dietary habits.

Kristin Saxena, MD

Children’s food preferences and eating habits are more malleable than those of adults, so starting these habits [early] is extraordinarily beneficial for the child’s current and lifelong health.

— Kristin Saxena, MD

Details About the Study 

The study, led by a research team at Cleveland Clinic, looked at three different healthy diets all characterized by fruits and vegetables, whole foods, and limited processed foods, red meat, and salt. The diets were the American Heart Association diet, the Mediterranean diet, and a plant-based diet.

The researchers looked at how these diets affected obesity rates and cardiovascular risks in 96 children aged 9-18 with BMIs in the 95th percentile. They used blood tests as a biomarker for cardiovascular disease. During the study, children and their parents participated in five educational sessions focusing on choosing healthy foods. 

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age.

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

The findings indicated that all three diets promote weight loss and reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease. Based on the results, the study’s authors emphasized the importance of starting healthy eating habits at a young age. Starting young keeps children healthy and also builds healthy routines that will last into adulthood, offering long-term protection from many ailments associated with obesity. 

Healthy Eating Habits from the Start

Building healthy eating habits from a young age doesn’t have to be complicated or require elaborate preparation. Here are some tips for how to promote healthy eating with your kids.

Cook at Home More

Making meals yourself can help ensure that you are offering meals without excessive fat or added salt. “Food cooked at home is almost always going to be healthier than food made outside the home and allows parents to have control of exactly what is going into the food,” notes Kristin Saxena, MD, a pediatrician and author of the podcast, Feeding the Family with Dr. Kristin. 

This doesn’t mean you have to always cook something gourmet. Simple, fast recipes can work just fine, as long as they are primarily plant-based, made with whole ingredients, and are low in fat and salt. And if it’s been an extra busy day, don’t feel guilty about ordering takeout occasionally.

Don’t Force It

Healthy eating habits are best developed in a positive way that gives the child control over their choices.

Trisha Best, RD

Insisting that your child clean their plate or eat all their vegetables can give them a sense that those foods are negative and diminish their ability to read their natural hunger cues.

— Trisha Best, RD

“Insisting that your child clean their plate or eat all their vegetables can give them a sense that those foods are negative and diminish their ability to read their natural hunger cues,” cautions Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements. “This can lead to overeating rather than listening to their body's hunger cues because they learn that [cleaning their plate] is more important than stopping when you're full.”

Instead, encourage your kids to eat until they feel full, then stop. Providing primarily whole fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, and nuts at meal and snack time can help ensure your kids are getting all of the health benefits from plant-based eating even if they don't finish everything on their plate.

Early Exposure

Introducing lots of healthy foods while avoiding less healthy options from an early age can help build a taste for nutritious, whole foods.

“Once a child is consuming solid foods, it is best to expose the child to a wide variety of foods, to include many fruits and vegetables in the diet, and to minimize processed foods,” says Dr. Saxena. “Additionally, staying away from sugar-sweetened beverages and limiting fruit juices can help reduce the risk of excessive sugar intake.”

Model Healthy Eating

What you do will have a greater impact than what you say. Let your kids see you enjoying healthy, plant-based meals, and eat them together. “Your child has a natural desire to emulate you,” explains Dr. Saxena. “If [they see] you eating and enjoying a wide variety of healthy foods [they] will be more likely to do the same.” 

Moving Towards a Plant-Based Diet

If you didn’t grow up eating a plant-based diet, making the switch toward a more plant-rich lifestyle may feel a little daunting. It may help to focus on adding more than eliminating. “Instead of taking foods away completely, focus on adding more fresh fruits and vegetables!” Best explains. “An easy approach is to make a habit of adding a fruit or vegetable to every meal and snack.”

Building a repertoire of meatless recipes can be a large task, so take it slowly. Best suggests choosing one day of the week to prepare a vegetarian or vegan meal. If you are making the switch to healthier eating with kids who are already accustomed to lots of meat and processed foods, getting them involved with the cooking and preparation can help them be more open to trying new dishes. 

What This Means For You

A diet rich in whole, plant-based foods has positive effects on children's weight and risk of developing cardiovascular diseases in the future. The earlier in life children start eating a plant-rich diet, the better off they are. Changing your own eating habits may be the best way to encourage a healthy diet in your children. A plant-based diet is beneficial for people of all ages, so make healthy eating a family affair!

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Macknin M, Stegmeier N, Thomas A, et al. Three healthy eating patterns and cardiovascular disease risk markers in 9 to 18 year olds with body mass index >95%: a randomized trialClin Pediatr (Phila). 2021;60(11-12):474-484. doi:10.1177/00099228211044841

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity facts.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity causes and consequences.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. No more "clean plate club".

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Starting solid foods.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.