Meat for growth and development of children and adolescents

The nutrition of children and adolescents is based on the same principles of adult nutrition, but with different quantity requirements. The first 2-3 years of a child’s life are crucial for his physical and mental development, and in this context the proteins play a key role in the proper functioning of the bones, muscles, blood, skin and hormones. Animal protein, particularly meat, is therefore a very important food: a portion of 80-100 grams of most types of meat contains about 20 grams of protein, and is a simple way to help your child achieve his protein intake goal. In addition to this, a correct intake of vitamin B12 is essential for neurological development and cell growth. Iron and zinc are important for the growth and development of infants and children.

The child in this period grows more than in all other stages of life, and if you do not eat properly you can get sick more easily, and generally you do not develop in the right way. For example, it is precisely at this stage that you can promote obesity in adulthood. Today it is understood, in fact, that fat cells are formed during childhood: if a child eats too much, he produces a greater number of fat cells that remain virtually unchanged as an adult. So you will have a greater risk of becoming obese.

Some nutrient deficiencies, such as that of iron, may instead result in low levels of attention and concentration in children, leading to poor school performances. The majority of studies that investigated the association between nutrition and cognitive development, have focused on individual micronutrients that are considered essential for the proper development of the brain, namely omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, folic acid, zinc, iron and iodine, all nutrients supplied in a special way by food of animal origin.

In children, the association between vitamin B12 and cognitive development has been observed especially in children born to vegetarian or vegan mothers who followed a macrobiotic diet. These diets can cause vitamin B12 deficiency, because vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods. Studies of children with vitamin B12 deficiencies showed abnormal clinical and radiological features, including: hypotonic muscles, involuntary muscle movements, apathy, reduced growth and demyelisation of nerve cells.

After treatment with vitamin B12, there is a rapid improvement of the neurologic symptoms in children with these deficits, but in many the damage is permanent, with a delay in cognitive and language development throughout their lives. The long-term effect of vitamin B12 deficiency is supported by the results of some studies in which researchers examined the cognitive functioning of adolescents who consumed a macrobiotic diet until the age of six, compared to boys who followed an omnivorous diet. Those teenagers who followed a macrobiotic diet up to 6 years of age had lower levels of fluid intelligence, short-term memory and spatial ability compared to controlled subjects.

Zinc deficiency seems to be a serious global problem that affects 40% of the population. Recent research suggests that children, adolescents, the elderly and people with diabetes are at high risk of zinc deficiency. It is believed that zinc is an essential nutrient for the brain, with important structural and functional roles. More specifically, zinc is a cofactor for over 200 enzymes that regulate various metabolic activities of the body including proteins, DNA and RNA synthesis. In addition, zinc plays a neurogenic role, the maturation and migration of neurons and the formation of synapses. Zinc is also found in high concentrations in synaptic vesicles of neurons in the hippocampus (that are involved in the centre for learning and memory). Zinc supplementation has a positive effect on the immune status of infants and can prevent birth defects.

One of the most common nutritional deficiencies both in the developing and developed countries is iron deficiency. It is believed that iron is involved in several enzyme systems in the brain, including those involved in energy production, in the synthesis of dopamine receptors, in the myelination of nerve cells and in the regulation of brain growth. In addition, iron appears to modify the development processes in hippocampus neurons by altering dendrite growth.

Some authors found significantly lower performance in language skills, fine motor skills and attention in children of 5 whose ferrite levels were lower. There is a broad scientific consensus that iron deficiency has a negative impact on cognitive, behavioural and movement functions and these cognitive deficits can appear at any age. Lack of iron is in fact clearly linked to brain changes in the hippocampus level, the mitochondria of the brain, the metabolism of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, and the myelination of nerve fibres.

One of the most worrying consequences of iron deficiency in children is the alteration of the behaviour and cognitive performance, for which there is a large amount of clinical biochemical and neuropathological research, showing how iron deficiency can exercise a deleterious effect on learning and brain development, which can also occur with normal levels of haemoglobin.

The iron supplement improves cognitive functions and meat, in particular beef, provides heme-iron, a different iron form that the organism absorbs to a greater extent and that is not found in vegetable or fortified foods. But if iron deficiency occurs very early in life, the damage may be irreversible, and it may not be possible to reverse the brain damage with treatment of iron.

Exclusively breast-fed infants at 9 months of age only get 10% of iron and zinc that they require, if during weaning there are cereals, fruit and vegetables they receive only 30% of these important nutrients that they require. Introducing meat already from the sixth month is the most effective way to provide the iron and zinc they need.

Meat and other animal products, such as milk, contain nutrients, such as iron, zinc and calcium, that are hard to find elsewhere, or are in a highly absorbable form and used by the body, such as iron. The World Health Organization recommends the intake of animal foods from 6 months of age, showing how diets based only on plants are not able to meet the nutritional needs of the child, unless they use of supplements or fortified products.


The Sustainable Meat Project

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.