Q. My husband and I do not eat red meat. However, we eat plenty of poultry and seafood, which our 15-month-old daughter also eats. Is it important to provide our daughter with red meat to ensure she has a balanced diet?
A. Since you and your husband do not eat red meat, you are naturally modeling this healthy eating habit to your child. You will be happy to know that there is absolutely nothing your child needs from red meat that she can’t get from another source. While beef is a rich source of protein, B vitamins (especially B-12), iron, and zinc, these nutrients can be obtained just as well from other foods. You may be wondering: “What’s the beef with red meat?” Here’s why your child doesn’t need to eat red meat and why she’s actually likely to be healthier without it.
Red meat contains large amounts of saturated fat. While it’s true that dietary fat is an essential source of calories for growing children (at least 40 to 50 percent of calories in a child’s diet should come from fat until the age of 2), not all fats are created equal. The saturated fats in red meat, dairy products, and some oils contribute to heart disease and obesity, while the monounsaturated fats from nuts, olive oil, and canola oil can actually help lower the amount of artery-clogging cholesterol in the blood. Since poultry has less saturated fat than red meat, it’s a good alternative, however the fat in seafood is the healthiest for people of all ages. Fish provide an essential fatty acid called omega-3 which your body can’t make. These omega-3 fats, (found in the greatest concentration in oily fish such as salmon and tuna) are especially valuable for children, since essential fatty acids are a vital structural component of the rapidly growing brain and central nervous system.
Another problem with red meat is it’s very low in fiber. Toddlers and preschool children often have a problem with constipation, so they need a high-fiber diet which red meat does not provide. Even the quality of protein in red meat ranks below the protein of egg white, fish, and dairy products. I’m also concerned about the effects of the muscle-building hormones and infection-killing antibiotics that are fed to beef cattle. These substances have never been proven safe, especially for growing children.
If you do decide to give your child the occasional bit of red meat, try to serve it in small portions and not as a main course. Also, make sure to choose the leanest cut and trim off all the fat you can see. Of the popular cuts of beef, “select” top round has the lowest amount of total saturated fat. When cooking meat, broil it instead of frying to remove more of the fat. And instead of buying straight hamburger, choose the leanest piece of beef you can find and ask the butcher to grind it into hamburger for you.
But there’s no question that the healthiest diet for both children and adults is a pesco-vegetarian one — a diet high in vegetables and seafood.