As a mom of a 2-year-old and with a baby on the way, I recognize the importance diet plays in my child’s development. That doesn’t mean my toddler’s diet is perfect; his favorite food is French fries and getting him to try new foods has turned mealtime into creative game playing. Lately, that game means each bite of food is a different animal needing to pass through the ‘gate’— my son’s mouth. But I understand the need to introduce and put a variety of healthy foods on his plate to provide him with the nutrients required for his high energy level and to support his brain development.
In fact, science shows the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are crucial in their long-term development, and dietary nutrients like protein, iron, zinc, choline and B vitamins— found naturally in animal-based protein— play a critical role in this development. That may be why the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for the first time, included recommendations specifically for children ages 6 months to 2 years old in the new 2020-25 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and for those guidelines to include meat.
The new model emphasizes nutrient-dense foods and making “every bite count,” especially for children who eat small quantities. For babies 6 to 12 months consuming human milk or formula, the guidelines indicate “complementary” foods can support their nutritional needs and introduce healthy eating habits. But especially for breast-fed children in this age range, meat, eggs and seafood were prioritized over fortified cereals to obtain adequate amounts of iron and zinc.
Zinc deficiency in children is associated with decreased growth, learning disabilities and poor health. Especially this winter as coronavirus, colds AND flus threaten our health, zinc can support our immune function. Likewise, lack of iron, which helps move oxygen through the body, can cause developmental issues in children.
Animal-based proteins are a superior choice for these two nutrients because they contain more zinc and iron readily available for our bodies to absorb than plant-based proteins. It was noted by the chair of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee that vegan diets-- those that do not include meat and dairy products derived from animals-- do not provide enough nutrients for children 6 months to one year of age. Caregivers who ascribe to lacto-ovo vegetarian diets (those that include eggs and dairy but no animal-sourced meats) are encouraged to consult their healthcare provider to ensure children are consuming sufficient amounts of iron and vitamin B12 to meet developmental needs.
Guidelines for a 1,000 calorie diet for a 12 to 24 month old—the age many U.S. children transition from human milk or formula to solid foods— included 1 cup of fruits, 1 cup of vegetables, 2 ounces of whole grains, 1 ounce of refined grain, 2 cups of dairy products and 2 ounces of protein, with a majority of that protein sourced from meats, poultry and eggs primarily in fresh, frozen, canned and lean forms.
(Interestingly, although soy beverages are included in USDA’s “dairy” category, other alternatives such as almond, coconut and oat milk were excluded because their “overall nutritional content is not similar to dairy milk.” Experts agree that real cow’s milk has the nutritional advantage, providing higher quality proteins, less sugar and a natural source of calcium.)
If your child is like mine, you long for the day when they will try anything under the sun and eat a variety of foods versus the same food over and over. The USDA dietary guidelines assure that as children grow they may become “picky eaters” and experience food “jags”, described as eating only one or a few foods for periods of time which is why it can take 8 to 10 exposures before a child is willing to accept a new food.
So, while my picky toddler prefers his protein in ‘nugget’ or ‘finger’ form, we’ll continue to offer him family favorites like grilled chops and lean beef cuts as he continues to grow (and encourage more veggies over French fries). Because no matter what stage of life each of us are in, from early childhood on, animal-based proteins continue to provide the complete, essential nutrients our bodies need for good health. The latest USDA guidelines underscore the importance that real meat, dairy and eggs play on everyone’s plate—even if that plate has cartoon animals and trucks on it!