Bringing up children as vegans is unethical, claims nutritionist.
Meat is a vital part of a child's diet, according to a two-year study of Kenyan schoolkids. Without it, children grow up smaller, less strong and less intelligent, the results suggest.
So clear are the benefits, in fact, that denying children meat or dairy products in the first few years of life is unethical, argues Lindsay Allen of the University of California, Davis, who carried out the research.
The 544 children in the study, who had an average age of seven years, were given two spoonfuls (about 60 grams) of minced beef each day to supplement their ordinary diet. Other groups were given a cup of milk, an equivalent amount of energy as vegetable oil, or no supplement at all.
Over two years, kids given food supplements gained an average of 400 grams more than those without, Allen told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC on 20 February. Those given meat showed the biggest benefits.
Children in the meat-supplemented group showed up to an 80% greater increase in upper-arm muscle compared with the non-supplemented children; for milk drinkers, this figure was 40%1.
Kids who were fed meat also outperformed their peers in tests of intelligence, problem solving and arithmetic. "The group that received the meat supplements were more active in the playground, more talkative and playful, and showed more leadership skills," Allen said.
Meat and other animal products such as milk contain nutrients that it is difficult to get elsewhere, Allen told the meeting. She pointed out that Kenyans' diet often consists mainly of starchy, low-nutrition corn and beans that lack sufficient iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamins A, E and B12.
Parents who find the idea of eating animals abhorrent might have some tough choices to make, she added. "There's absolutely no question that it's unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans," she said.
“There's absolutely no question that it's unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans. Lindsay Allen , University of California, Davis”
Although chemical supplements may fill some gaps, the only way to guarantee that children absorb all the nutrients that they need is to feed them meat and fish, she says.
Luci Daniels, a paediatric dietitian and former chairwoman of the British Dietetic Association, says, "It's unsurprising that adding meat to a child's diet improves their development." Daniels says that the effect seen by Allen may be caused by the protein content of the meat, or the vitamins or minerals present.
"Anyone who has a child on a vegan diet has to be aware that the lack of nutrients can affect the child's development," she adds.
In developing countries like Kenya, feeding the next generation properly is important for future prosperity, says Montague Demment, also at the University of California, Davis and director of the Global Livestock Collaborative Research Support Program. "Poverty creates malnutrition and malnutrition reinforces poverty."
AllenL. H. J. Nutrition (suppl.), 133. 3875S - 3878S (2003).
University of California, Davis