New research from Cleveland Clinic Children’s found that in four weeks, obese children eating a low-fat, plant-based vegan diet lowered their risk of heart disease more than those who ate a traditional heart-healthy diet.

The four-week study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, followed 28 obese children between the ages of 9 and 18. All had high cholesterol. Children, and one parent of each child, were assigned either a plant-based vegan diet or the heart-healthy diet, as recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA).

Participants on the plant-based diet consumed plants and whole grains, with limited avocado and nuts, no added fat, and no animal products. Researchers found that the children experienced significant markers in nine measures: BMI, systolic blood pressure, weight, mid-arm circumference, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and insulin, as well as two common markers of heart disease, myeloperoxidase and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein.

The AHA diet followers consumed fruits, vegetables, whole grains and non-whole grains, limited sodium, low-fat dairy, selected plant oils, and lean meat and fish in moderation. Children in this group experienced significant improvements in four measures: weight, waist circumference, mid-arm circumference and myeloperoxidase.

As the number of obese children with high cholesterol continues to grow, researchers emphasized the importance of finding 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,” lead study author Dr. Michael Macknin, a staff pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, said in a news release. “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.”   

According to the news release, children on the plant-based diet reduced their consumption of animal protein from 42 grams daily to 2.24 grams daily, while also reducing their percentage of calories from fat and saturated fat to 18 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively. Children on the AHA diet were to consume less than 30 percent of their total calories from fat, less than 7 percent of calories from saturated fat, less than 1,500 mg sodium and less than 300 mg cholesterol.

Researchers found that, while most families were able to follow the dietary guidelines for the study period, they had difficulty purchasing food for the plant-based diet.

“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,” Macknin said.