Finally, a scientific survey that can be embraced, rather than debunked.

The only downside is that it was published halfway around the world, and thus will generate minimal enthusiasm among parents in the United States.

According to a new study was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, children need to eat more meat. And we’re talking toddlers here—kids 12 to 16 months old. The researchers cautioned that inadequate meat consumption is compromising the iron levels of many youngsters in that crucial growth period, which can be detrimental to good health and proper physiological development.

What the study authors called the current “low-meat trend”—read, “stop eating meat to save the planet!”—has been linked to an increase in the use of infant formula use by a number of health experts. “Parents are substituting formula for baby food with meat, and therefore what is a natural source of iron and other nutrients for children has been a less regular part of their daily diet than ever before,” the authors stated.

The study involved 24-hour dietary data of 550 children aged of 12 and 16 months that were analyzed by researchers from Queensland (Australia) University of Technology. Now, normally dietary recall studies have serious flaws, especially when they occur over time. When people are asked to record what they eaten, they tend to minimize the quantities of “bad” foods they eat, misjudge meal portions and “forget” to include other choices that might reflect badly on the quality of their diets. 

Thus, the data from recall studies aren’t always reliable. However, when the subjects are toddler, who are just beginning to eat solid food, parents are extremely conscious of what they’re feeding their children and how much they eat. You’d have to search to find moms or parents of a child who just turned a year old in a position to think that, “I’m not really sure what my baby’s eating—I’ll just guesstimate for purposes of this study.”

Studies of what children are consuming when they’re just learning to eat solid food—which has to be fed to the child—are typically quite accurate.

When diets are critical

In this study, the researchers discovered that as many as one in five children were not getting any meat at all in their daily diets. Of the children who did eat some meat, almost half were not getting quantities, at least by the standards of the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, which advises that toddlers should be given 65 grams of cooked lean meats a day (for those who haven’t yet embraced the metric system, that’s about two ounces). Of course, since the kids in question live Down Under, the meats the researchers recommended include “unprocessed forms of beef, kangaroo and lamb.”

Doubtful if those last two choices would find their way into too many American babies’ mouths, no matter how committed their parents are about ensuring an adequate iron intake for their children.

Because that’s what this study identified: Too many children during one of the most crucial developmental periods of their young lives were not getting a balanced diet, which means they weren’t getting sufficient iron and other essential nutrients.

Rebecca Byrne, a researcher with Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation and lead author, noted that when parents rely too much on formula and cow’s milk, infants feel full up too quickly and therefore have less of an appetite for solid food. The study reported that more than half of the children surveyed were eating inadequate servings of the five recommended food groups: dairy, fruit, vegetables, meat and grains.

Here are the details:


  • 97% of the children studied ate only cereal for breakfast or other grain-based food such as bread
  • 91% ate “sweets, cakes and pastries” on a regular basis
  • 78% of the children ate meat, but half of those kids ate less than 30 grams a day
  • 22% of the children studied are no meat at all

Bryne explained that although “a meat deficiency” was the biggest nutritional issue, many children also were not eating sufficient servings of the fruit and vegetables essential for growth and development.

Equally important, a diet incorporating all five food groups is important because evidence suggests that food preferences that develop during early childhood typically persist into adulthood. “Dietary diversity, represented by the number of foods or food groups eaten during a given time-period, is an indicator of dietary quality and nutrient adequacy in developed countries,” the authors wrote.

And this is the part I love: Bryne noted that the 12- to 16-month age can be “a challenging time” for parents, as toddlers transition from milk-based nutrition to family style meals. That’s when “food behavior problems” can develop, with children refusing to eat certain foods, which, the researchers noted, “can lead to all manners of behavioral problems in later years.”

Ya think?

Look, there’s no magic trick that will get kids to eat their vegetables (and their meat), but the facts are indisputable: young children who aren’t fed a balanced diet may fail to grow and develop properly, may get sick more often and can’t be expected to embrace good eating habits later in life if those habits aren’t developed when they’re sitting in a high chair totally dependent on what their parents feed them.

Managing that challenge in early childhood might be even more crucial than the diet itself.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.