meat is important for the growth of children

Why meat is important for the growth of children

Proteins, vitamins and minerals of meat make it the most suitable food for children’s optimal physical and cognitive growth.

Nutrition in children is very important to cover the high needs related to growth. Especially the first three years of life are critical for physical and mental development. In this context, for example, proteins play a key role in bone and muscle growth, brain development, hormone synthesis and immune defences.

Animal proteins, like meat proteins, are the best to provide children with all the essential amino acids they need. Like lysine, that is essential for growth. A portion of 80 grams of meat can provide about 16 grams of easily digestible and assimilated protein, helping the coverage of needs simply and efficiently. It has been shown that a low animal protein diet, lower than the daily protein requirement, which is around 15 g/day in children of 3-5 years, reduces their “cognitive performance“, evaluated according to the Terman-Merrill “score” (Scrimshaw, 1998).

In addition to high-quality proteins, meat also provides essential vitamins and minerals, easily assimilated by the body, which vegetables alone cannot guarantee. This is because some plant nutrients are “trapped” in a matrix of fibres and anti-nutritional factors that make them difficult to be absorbed and used. That’s why meat is the optimal food to readily obtain many essential nutrients with a unique bioavailability (our body’s ability to absorb nutrients). These include heme iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, long-chain Omega 3 EPA-DHA, creatine and taurine.


Meat, especially red meat of beef, veal, pork and lamb, is an excellent source of heme iron, which is more easily absorbed and used by our body than non-heme iron, which is mostly from vegetables. If you had to cover your daily iron needs only using raw spinach, you would have to eat 25 kg daily. Iron is essential for the properly functioning of all organs, including the brain. Heme iron serves for the constitution of haemoglobin, for the transport of oxygen, increases resistance to infections and allows the breathing of cells. Its blood levels have also been linked to school achievement and arithmetic skills, memory, attention and concentration levels. Its deficiency causes anaemia and reduced neurocognitive development in children.


Like all minerals in meat, zinc is more easily absorbed than that contained in vegetables, and it is essential for the brain, with important structural and functional roles. It is a cofactor for more than 200 enzymes that regulate different metabolic activities of the body, including protein, DNA and RNA synthesis. It plays an important role in neurogenesis, namely the maturation and migration of neurons and the formation of synapses. It is, therefore, necessary for growth, learning, and memory, healing wounds, the sensitivity of taste and smell, strengthening the immune system and combating infections.


Meat contains B vitamins, and vitamin B12 is particularly important as it is absent in plants and can only be found in meat and animal-source foods. For this reason, those who follow an exclusively plant-based diet will necessarily have to take supplements of this essential vitamin. This plays several functions: in the formation of red blood cells, nerve function, the transformation of energy and the neuro-cognitive development of children. Many recent cases of children weaned only with vegetables and without meat reported serious nutritional deficiencies, including that of vitamin B12. This caused repercussions and permanent damage to neuro-motor development, with difficulty in sitting, hypotonic muscles, apathy, reduced growth, demyelination of nerve cells, and delays in mental development and speech throughout life.


The important EPIC-Oxford study shows that meat is also a source of vitamin D, especially in the most physiologically useful form, vitamin D3 and calcitriol. In plants, as in mushrooms irradiated with UV rays, there is vitamin D2, which is of less biological interest. Particular components of meat proteins increase the use of vitamin D in humans, even when sun exposure is not possible. In vegan children, the return of rickets is dramatic, a pathological condition eradicated in recent decades thanks to the proper nutrition allowed by greater well-being and returned due to meatless diets imposed on children. This disease leads to the weakening and deformation of bones, hindering the mineralization and robust growth of the skeleton.


Together with vitamin B12, choline, folic acid, iron, iodine and zinc, the long-chain omega 3 EPA and DHA are essential nutrients for the proper neuro-cognitive and child’s brain development. These are also found in meat and animal products, especially oily fish. Omega 3 in plants is short-chain and does not have the same biological functions as EPA and DHA, which are “essential” because the conversion from short-chain to long-chain in our body is inefficient and less than 5%.


As the name suggests (From the Greek kréas kréatos ‘meat’), creatine is found only in meat and fish, while taurine is also in milk, breast and cow, and eggs and fish. Both are necessary for the development of newborns and children. Low levels of these two substances inevitably lead to malnutrition, depression, weakness, fatigue, nerve damage, worsening school performance, reduced memory capacity, learning and IQ, and severe somatic and cognitive growth disorders.

The importance of meat and animal products for children’s growth is especially evident in developing countries, where these foods of high nutritional value are unfortunately unavailable because of poverty. In these countries, children are fed almost exclusively with cereals, vegetables, fruits and legumes, causing malnutrition and growth stunting, with 8-year-old children with the same build as 4-year-old children.

According to the World Health Organization, animal foods are the best sources to fully meet the nutritional needs of children aged 6 to 23 months. Even the most authoritative paediatric nutrition companies in Italy, SIPPS-SIMP-FIMP-SIMA, have recognized the inadequacy of plant-based diets in infancy unless a close medical check and the use of supplements and fortified foods.



Agronomist, nutritional consultant and scientific writer, author and co-author of 11 scientific publications and numerous articles on human nutrition and its impact on health and environment. In 2010 she received the title of Doctor Europaeus and PhD in Animal Production, Health and Food Hygiene in countries with a Mediterranean climate.