Meat, eggs and poultry play key role in improved nutrition

New research from UC Davis highlights the pivotal role of animal protein for family nutrition in developing countries.

Nearly 150 million children in the world suffer from stunted growth, a condition linked to chronic malnutrition that keeps people from reaching their full physical, mental and social potential.

Evidence shows that animal-sourced foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy can help.

“Poor nutrition, infection, stress and poverty can contribute to stunting, and there is an important correlation between growth and animal-sourced food consumption,” said Christine Stewart of the Institute for Global Nutrition at UC Davis.

Fish, eggs, meat and other animal-sourced foods are beneficial, but it’s not just because of the protein they provide. Most children get enough protein. Instead, stunted and other undernourished children experience what nutritionists call “hidden hunger”—chronic deficiencies in iron, iodine, zinc, choline, vitamin B-12 and other micronutrients needed for healthy growth and brain development.

For children in developing countries, animal-sourced foods provide many essential micronutrients that are hard to find in adequate supply from plants alone. Iron is a good example. Children need iron as their brains, muscles and blood cells grow. A 12-month-old infant requires 11 milligrams of iron each day, compared to 8 milligrams for adults. Gram per gram, you would need to eat eight times more spinach than liver and four times more spinach than beef to obtain the same amount of iron.

Fifteen years ago, researchers led what is still considered the most formative experiment on the role livestock nutrition plays in improving children’s growth, physical activity and cognitive development. The Global Livestock Collaborative Research Support Programme supported a five-year project in Kenya that tracked more than 1 000 children – some who received two ounces of beef on school days and some who did not.

Over the course of five years, the kids who regularly ate meat scored 20% higher on cognitive tests, spent more time in leadership behaviours and were more physically active than the children who did not. The children’s muscle mass increased markedly and their vitamin B-12 deficiency was eliminated.

“When children consume diets rich in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, they have a greater opportunity to survive and thrive,” Stewart said. “Animal-sourced food is one important way to help provide children the nutrients they need.”

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