After new research reveals that the diets of infants and nursery chool children are low in many vitamins and minerals found in red meat, dietitians discuss whether meat is a vital part of children's diets - or not.

By Lisa Salmon

A new report suggests that young children aren't getting enough of the key nutrients supplied by red meat, so they should be eating more.

However, in recent years there have been several studies suggesting red meat consumption is reduced because it's associated with cancer and heart problems.

It's enough to confuse even the most knowledgeable of parents.

The latest report, commissioned by the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), recommends that red meat is included within a healthy balanced diet from weaning onwards because it contains key nutrients that many children are missing out on.

The study evaluated UK dietary surveys of infants and preschool children, and found their diets were low in iron, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin D, all of which can be provided by red meat.

Dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton, a MAP member who co-authored the report, points out that nutritional requirements are high during infancy and childhood due to rapid growth and development, yet the research showed that young children's requirements for micronutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin D weren't being met.

"Red meat is a highly bioavailable source of essential nutrients," she stresses, and points out that emerging research suggests including red meat in the weaning diet may be linked to reduced obesity and better cognitive development.

"In young children, a serving of red meat can make a considerable contribution to the intake of iron and zinc as well as that of protein."

She explains that vitamin A is required for eye function and immune health, zinc for growth and iron for brain development, and stresses: "A lack of these nutrients in early childhood may prejudice health in ways that cannot be compensated for in later life.

"Red meat should therefore be included within a healthy, balanced diet from weaning onwards."

However, a study published last month by researchers at Cambridge University found reducing the amount of red meat in adult male diets led to a decrease in colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.

And a Harvard University study earlier this year found that regular consumption of red meat, particularly processed red meat, was associated with increased mortality risk. Deaths were particularly related to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The study also showed that substituting other healthy protein sources, such as fish, poultry and nuts, was associated with a lower risk of mortality.

Although the Government issued new guidelines last year suggesting adults cut their red meat intake to around 70g per day (the equivalent of three slices of ham, a lamb chop or two slices of roast beef a day),

British Dietetic Association spokesperson Kate Harrod-Wild says there are no specific guidelines on red meat portion sizes for children.

General guidance, she says, is to give one to two portions of protein-containing foods (two to three for vegetarians) and to include iron-rich foods every day.

She says evidence from large studies suggests a link between the consumption of red meat and the risk of heart disease and cancer, and this is even stronger for processed meat products.

However, she points out that iron deficiency anaemia is so common in preschool children that the need for them to get plenty of iron in their diets takes precedence over any perceived risks of eating red meat.

"With nutrition there is rarely a no-risk option," she explains.

"With many children, particularly preschool children, the problem is that they don't eat enough red meat rather than they eat too much. Therefore, we tend to focus on the benefits of iron in red meat rather than the increased risks."

Harrod-Wild says that in early childhood the brain needs iron for the rapid brain growth that occurs.

"If children don't get enough iron, they may not develop to their potential. Once brain development is complete there isn't really the opportunity to improve on it, whereas there are steps you can take to improve cardiovascular health - so the brain tends to trump the cardiovascular system in terms of priority."

She says breakfast cereals are an important source of iron for young children, although this iron is less well absorbed than that from red meat.

Ideally, children should have a glass of fruit juice or some cut up fruit with breakfast, she says, as the vitamin C will help the iron to be absorbed.

She points out that vegetarian children can get enough iron from alternative sources, as long as families give them a variety of foods, and adds: "Rising rates of childhood obesity suggest that children are getting enough calories, and in my work I would say poor intakes of fat-soluble vitamins are rare."

Liz O'Neill, spokesperson for the Vegetarian Society, points out that it's not surprising a report funded by the meat industry reaches a positive conclusion about the role of red meat in children's diets.

But she stresses: "When you look at the details, the picture is far less clear.

"Sadly, some children in the UK aren't getting all the nutrients they need, but the MAP report doesn't differentiate between those who currently eat meat and those who don't. It offers no evidence that families choosing to avoid meat for ethical or health reasons are at any greater risk of nutritional deficiency than those who do eat meat."

She stresses that the nutrients mentioned in the study can all be found in other foods, and adds: "With a balanced vegetarian diet taking a smaller toll on both the planet and the pocket, there really is no need to lead families up the garden path by suggesting they need to feed red meat to their children."

Ask the expert

Q: "When my 11-year-old son gets his pocket money he spends it straight away. How can I get him to understand the value of money - do schools teach anything about this?"

A: Sophie Wood is a programme manager at the National Children's Bureau, which has helped young people produce a toolkit about campaigning for good financial education in schools.

She says: "It's not uncommon for money to burn a hole in young people's pockets as they get to grips with managing their finances. However, it's important that they learn from these experiences.

"I recommend you carry on giving your son a modest allowance, but sit down with him and work out a budget so he's got enough for all the things he needs. Make it clear to him that the better he gets with money, the more likely you'll be to trust him with important decisions like buying his own clothes.

"Of course there's only so much that parents can do, so we believe that every child should be taught how to manage their money at school. Personal financial education (PFE) helps children and young people decide whether to spend or save, how to live on a budget, and make everyday financial decisions.

"There's a real enthusiasm for PFE among young people, and a group of children and young people working with the National Children's Bureau and the Personal Financial Education Group want to tap into this enthusiasm to bring about change. They have produced the 'Our Money, Our Future' toolkit for other children and young people, to help them campaign within their own schools for high-quality PFE to be taught to all pupils. Some schools already teach PFE well, but it's very much at the school's discretion how much they teach."

:: To download the Our Money, Our Future toolkit, visit

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