Sun, 06 Mar 2005

Meat claim stirs up debate over children's diet

David Adam and Tim Radford, Guardian News Service, London/Washington

Some say meat is murder, while others dismiss a meal without animal products as rabbit food.

Now a leading U.S. nutritionist has given both sides something to chew on with a claim that parents who refuse to feed children meat are acting unethically.

Prof. Lindsay Allen of the University of California said that to deny growing children animal products during the critical first few years of life could cause permanent damage.

She said foods made from meat contain some nutrients not found anywhere else and are hard to replace in the diet of vulnerable groups.

"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," she said. "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 told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

There are an estimated 250,000 vegans and up to 4 million vegetarians in the UK, but there are no figures on how many children are brought up on such diets.

Allen made the claims after her research showed that adding just two spoonfuls of meat to the daily diet of poverty-stricken children in Africa transformed them physically and mentally. Over 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.

"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," she told the conference.

Studies of vegetarians in both the U.S. and Europe have 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 reintroducing meat and milk into their diets. They remained impaired.

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

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. Two other groups received a cup of milk a day or an oil supplement containing the same amount of energy. A fourth group ate their normal diet.

"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," she said.

Other nutritionists questioned how relevant the results were to the developed world. "This study was conducted in a very different environment, so it's difficult to apply the findings to the UK because they're talking about malnourished children," said Nilani Sritharan of the UK Medical Research Council's human nutrition unit in Cambridge, southern England.

"I wouldn't say (a vegan diet for children) is unethical. I would say if someone is giving their child a vegan diet they need to be given a lot of guidance and you would need to monitor the child quite carefully."

She said the danger areas were the energy and iron content in the diet of vegan children, who also need supplements of vitamin B12, which is missing altogether.

Alex Bourke, chair of the Vegan Society, dismissed Allen's remarks as "propaganda" for the U.S. meat and dairy industries.

Allen is director of a research center run by the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, part of the Department of Agriculture.

He said: "This is a very unfair comparison. You do need to eat a healthy, balanced vegan diet as with any other system. These African villages were subsisting on corn and beans -- that is not a balanced diet." Vegan parents must also give their children leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, he said.

Sir Paul McCartney, whose first wife Linda put her name to a range of meat-free range of food, telephoned the BBC on Feb. 21 to dismiss Allen's claims as "rubbish". He told the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine Show that he had been a vegetarian for 20 years and raised his children the same with no ill effects.

"I really do think this is rubbish. I suspect these things are engineered by livestock people who have seen sales fall off. It has been a good thing for me and my children who are no shorter than other children."


LUCY BARNETT, 34, a classroom assistant, lives with her husband David, 41, a welder, and their children Daniel, 12, and Charlotte, 10, in Stuartfield, Scotland. The whole family became vegan eight years ago:

I became vegan before the rest of the family, mainly because of cruelty to animals. I had suffered from endometriosis since puberty, but within three weeks of giving up meat and dairy products, it was gone. I had so much more energy, I lost weight.

The rest of the family went vegan six months later. My children were already vegetarian and at that age -- four and two -- they weren't aware of much difference. As they've got older I've made it clear to them that it's up to them, but to my knowledge they have stayed vegan. I don't tell them anything too shocking, but they probably do know more about animal cruelty and health than their friends.

I wouldn't say it's particularly difficult. Obviously it requires some thinking about at the start and you have to work out which products are good and where to find them. But mostly I still cook the same things I used to cook -- spaghetti bolognese, curry and rice, baked potato with salad and couscous, burgers, chips and beans -- just using different ingredients.

We have been lucky with the children's schools, and it's never been an issue. They usually take packed lunches but where they are now there are lots of other vegans and the school actually provides vegan meals a few times a month.

Far from missing out, I would say they have benefited. My son had been incredibly hyperactive, but since giving up meat and dairy products he has calmed down considerably.

He also used to have a lot of upset stomachs and those have gone. I notice that both of them have fewer colds than their friends. I think the findings of this study are nonsense. It was funded by the meat and dairy industry in the US, so it was probably geared to find this result.