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Foodie has beef with vegans

David Adam, Tim Radford

Some say meat is murder, while others dismiss a meal without animal products as rabbit food. Now a leading United States nutritionist has given both sides something to chew on with a claim that parents who refuse to feed children meat are acting unethically. She says a lack of meat during the critical first few years of life could cause permanent damage.

Some say meat is murder, while others dismiss a meal without animal products as rabbit food. Now a leading United States nutritionist has given both sides something to chew on with a claim that parents who refuse to feed children meat are acting unethically.

Professor 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.

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

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

The study involved 544 children, whose diet chiefly consists of starchy, low-nutrition corn and bean staples lacking these micronutrients. 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.

But 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 United Kingdom because they’re talking about malnourished children,’’ said Nilani Sritharan of the United Kingdom Medical Research Council’s human nutrition unit in Cambridge, 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 are the energy and iron content in the diet of vegan children, who also need supplements of vitamin B12, which is missing altogether.

Alex Bourke, author, activist and chairperson of the British Vegan Society, dismissed Allen’s remarks as “propaganda’’ for the US meat and dairy industries. Allen is director of a research centre run by the US 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.”

Sir Paul McCartney, whose first wife, Linda, put her name to a range of meat-free food, telephoned the BBC this week to dismiss Allen’s claims as “rubbish’‘. He told a BBC radio show that he had been a vegetarian for 20 years and raised his children the same way 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.” — Â

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