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Can veganism save the (fat) children?

A small study suggests just a month of a vegan diet could mean a healthier cardiac future for obese children.

After just a month on a strict vegan diet, obese children dropped weight and risk for heart disease, according to a small Cleveland Clinic study. With obesity affecting nearly 18 percent of kids six to 11 years old and 21 percent of adolescents, a strategy for fighting the fat--and the troubling promise of adult health risks--is critical.

The study included two groups of 14 mostly white, middle-class children ages nine to 18. They all had high cholesterol. Each kid, along with a parent, was randomly assigned to eat either a plant-based, no fat-added diet or the American Heart Association diet, which is similar but permits non-whole grains, low-fat diary, some plant oils and lean meat and fish in moderation.

After a month, children in both groups lost weight and improved their myeloperosidase (MPO), a blood test that measures inflammation related to heart disease risk. But things were even better for the vegan kids. Their test results showed significant improvements in systolic blood pressure, body mass index, total cholesterol, total low density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad cholesterol”) c-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) and insulin levels.

"It was exciting to see," Dr. Michael Macknin, the study’s lead author and a pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic, said in a Clinic release. "If they can eat like this, the hope is that they can grow into adults who do not have the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. What this is is hope for the future."

"We know that cardiovascular disease begins in childhood, so the concern is that the high cholesterol may put them at risk for subsequent heart attack," Macknin said. "We'd like to lower it now to prevent the risk later on. That's one of the joys of being a pediatrician: You actually have a chance to prevent disease rather than treat it."

One thing that did surprise Macknin about the research, was that the families that participated didn’t feel tortured by the limitations of the rigorous vegan diet. They did not find the food was bland, boring or unappetizing. They did find it easy to stay on the diet and to find options at restaurants and were satisfied with what they had to eat, Macknin said.

"Which I thought was--unscientifically--surprising," Macknin said. "I was amazed that they found it as acceptable as they did. Part of that could be that we took a highly motivated group that volunteered." 

The research was published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

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