Red signals confusion for parents trying to keep family healthy

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Is red meat vital for children, or could eating it damage their health? Grace Hammond looks at the arguments.

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 recommending less red meat consumption because it’s associated with cancer and heart problems. It’s enough to confuse even the most knowledgeable of parents.

The latest research, 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.

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.

“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 adds: “A lack of these nutrients in early childhood may prejudice health in ways that cannot be compensated for in later life.”

However, a study 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 found that regular consumption of red meat, particularly processed red meat, was associated with increased mortality, particularly from 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 death.

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

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

“With many children, particularly pre-school 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. She says breakfast cereals are an important source of iron, although this iron is less well absorbed than that from red meat. Ideally, children should have a glass of fruit juice or some fruit with breakfast, as the vitamin C will help iron to be absorbed.

Vegetarian children can get enough iron from other sources, as long as they are given a wide variety of foods.