Children on meat-free diets 'suffer impaired growth'

Strict vegetarians who insist their children live by the same principles were criticised today by a leading nutrition expert.

Strict vegetarians who insist their children live by the same principles were criticised today by a leading nutrition expert.

Denying growing children animal products in their diet during the critical first few years of life was "unethical" and could do permanent damage, said Professor Lindsay Allen, from the University of California at Davis.

She conducted a study which showed that adding just two spoonfuls of meat to the diet of poverty-stricken children in Africa transformed them both physically and mentally.

Over a period of two years the children almost doubled their muscle development, and showed dramatic improvements in mental skills. They also became more active, talkative and playful at school.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC, Prof Allen said: "Animal source foods have some nutrients which are not found anywhere else. If you're talking about feeding young children and pregnant women and lactating women I would go as far as to say it is unethical to withhold these foods during that period of life.

"There's a lot of empirical research that will show the very adverse effects on child development of doing that."

She was especially critical of parents who imposed a vegan lifestyle on their children which denied them milk, cheese and butter as well as meat.

"There's absolutely no question that it's unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans," she said.

Meat provides a concentrated source of essential micronutrients such as zinc, vitamin B12, calcium, iron and vitamin A. which cannot easily be obtained solely from plant foods.

The African study involved 544 children in Kenya, typically aged about seven, whose diet chiefly consists of starchy, low-nutrition corn and bean staples lacking these micronutrients.

Over a period of two years, one group of the children was given a daily supplement of two ounces of meat - equivalent to about two spoonfuls of mince.

Two other groups received either a cup of milk a day or an oil supplement containing the same amount of energy. The diet of a fourth group was left unaltered.

The changes seen in the children given the meat, and to a lesser extent the milk or oil, were dramatic.

Prof Allen, who is director of the US Agricultural Research Service's Western Human Nutrition Research Centre at Davis, said: "It was found that compared with controls that had no intervention, the meat group had 80% more increase in muscle mass over the two years of the study, and the milk and energy group had 40% more increase in muscle mass.

"In terms of cognitive function, the group that received the meat supplement showed the biggest improvement in fluid intelligence over the two years, and those who had either milk or energy supplements were better than the controls.

"The group that received the meat supplements were more active in the playground, more talkative and playful, and showed more leadership skills."

Test scores for mental skills improved by 35 points for the meat group, 14 for the milk, and remained unchanged for the children who received no supplements, she said.

Adding either meat or milk to the diets also almost completely eliminated the very high rates of vitamin B12 deficiency previously seen in the children.

Prof Allen added: "It's important to know that these important benefits to human function and human capital were seen in just two years.

"Had these children received these foods earlier in life or their mothers received them when they had been pregnant, or people could receive them throughout their lives, we think that the improvements in human capital development would be even more dramatic."

She stressed that although the study was conducted in a poor African community, its message was highly relevant to people in developed countries.

Studies of vegetarians in both the United States and Europe had shown that missing out on meat and dairy products can permanently impair a child's development.

Researchers in Holland found that by the time children were 16 years old it was too late to help them by re-introducing meat and milk into their diets. They remained impaired.

Prof Allen accepted that adults could avoid animal foods if they took the right supplements, but the risks were too great for developing children.

Traditionally supplements have been used to address the problem of nutritional deficiency in developing countries.

But new evidence has shown that the best policy is to provide more animal source foods, the meeting heard.

In Africa, good results had been obtained from giving people a dried meat on a stick snack which proved both nutritious and appealing.

Professor Montague Demment, also from the University of California at Davis, said a nation's prosperity could be determined by diet, especially that of children.

"In many countries we see what I call the poverty malnutrition trap," he said. "Poverty creates malnutrition and malnutrition reinforces poverty. Maybe in the short term you can supplement, which is how many donors have attacked the problem. That is giving pills, but pills don't grow economies. Food grows economies."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

Day In a Page

Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border