Consumption of animal foods has become an integral part of our culture, and these foods are perceived by many to be necessary components of maintaining good health. But recent scientific studies have implicated these foods as a cause for many of the most debilitating and deadly diseases affecting people.
Sadly, economics is the main concern of most meal programs in early childhood centers; cooking activities in these places often place emphasis on participation, having fun and preparing tasty meals and snacks but do not give children time or a rationale to explore healthier foods.
The preparation of nutritious, plant-based foods can be appealing to young children while encouraging them to try these healthier (albeit often unfamiliar) meals and snacks.
Health Risks of Animal Foods
Animal derived foods such as meat, eggs and dairy products are very high in fat and cholesterol, while food from plant sources contain no cholesterol and tend to be much lower in fat. Animal foods to the children that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol and low in complex carbohydrates and fiber.
This raises the total blood serum cholesterol level and atherosclerosis begins: plaques begin to line the artery walls, clogging them and lessening the blood to the heart, brain and other vital organs.
Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and populations that consume diets rich in plant food have much lower rates of this disease. There is a lot of evidence that high cholesterol levels in childhood leads to coronary heart disease, arteriosclerosis and strokes later in life.
In other words, these diseases have less to do with hereditary factors and more to do with eating patterns children acquire form their parents, schools and centers.
There is a link between high fat intake and the incidence of cancer, particularly of the breast, prostate and colon. However, vegetables such as brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli contain a naturally occurring chemicals called indole and aromatic isothiocyanates that help to prevent cancer; flavones, found in fruits and vegetables, have a similar effect, and protease inhibitors found in seeds, soy beans and lima beans are also ant carcinogens.
These foods are known to prevent cancers of the lung, colon, bladder, ream, mouth, stomach, cervix and esophagus.
Pesticides and other chemicals ingested by rummaging animals are stored and concentrated in their fat, presenting another danger to children who eat fatty animal foods. And when children eat these foods, obesity becomes a problem for many of them.
Diet High in Saturated Fats
In response to the growing awareness of the dangers of diet high in saturated fats, many people are switching to lean meats and low-fat dairy. But how much lower in fat are these foods?
Compare dinners of rice, broccoli and either four ounces of black beans, four ounces of chicken breast without the skin and four ounces of lean beef. The bean dinner has 3.3 grams of fat, the chicken 34.3 grams and the beef 51.1 grams.
Even chicken, generally perceived as a low-fat meat, is only low-fat when compared to other animal foods. A six ounce serving of two percent milk has 3.75 grams of fat (from package information); this is more than the entire bean dinner.
Most of the people living in this world are lactose intolerant; that is, they do not have the lactase enzyme in their systems needed to turn lactose, a milk sugar; into galactose, a substance humans can digest.
There are much higher rates of lactose intolerance among non-white peoples, as milk is not a traditional food among African and Asian populations. Symptoms of lactose intolerance are indigestion, intestinal gas, cramps and chronic diarrhea.
The National Dairy Council recommends that people with lactose intolerance eat cheeses, yogurt and ice cream, drink lactose reduced milk or add an enzyme product to milk they drink. They do not recommend cutting dairy out of the diet because it provides protein and calcium.
Allergies to Milk Proteins
Many adults and children have allergies to milk proteins, the most common cause of food allergies. Symptoms include canker sores, digestive problems, skin conditions and respiratory reactions.
Many people are not aware that these conditions are caused by a milk allergy until they or their children stop ingesting products and notice stuffy noses, post-nasal drip, end rashes disappear.
The consumption of milk and dairy products has been linked to even more severe respiratory problems such as asthma. In one study, 22 non-seasonal asthmatics in Israel who were lactase deficient eliminated all dairy foods from their diets for six months. Many of these peoples had a family history of asthma.
Improvement was apparent within two to three weeks, and after several months 15 of the patients had no hospital admissions and were able to cut down or eliminate their medications.
Cow’s milk has been implicated in the onset of diabetes mellitus in adults and children. The milk proteins can trigger the release of certain antibodies which adversely affect the islets of the langerhans, which are in the pancreas and secrete insulin if there is too much glucose in the blood stream. A study of 142 diabetic Finnish children (ages four-to 13-years-old) who consumed dairy foods found that all of them had much higher levels of these antibodies when compared to non-diabetic peers.
A correlation has been discovered between women who consume saturated fats and the incidence of and death from ovarian cancer. One study directly implicates dairy as the cause: when a woman’s consumption of it exceeds her body’s capacity to absorb the galactose it creates, the excess galactose can adversely affect her ovaries. Since the problem stems from the milk sugar rather than the fat, eating low-fat dairy is not a solution.
Most animal products are produced under extremely unsanitary conditions that pose a potential threat to health. Animal foods that are undercooked can transmit parasites like salmonella and E. coli. Almost all eggs and poultry are produced in high confinement factory farms: hens spend their lives in small wire cages, and thousands of cages containing four to six of them are stacked three high in a typical egg or poultry plant.
Since the eggs and meat are produced in such unsanitary conditions, they are given small, sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics mixed in their feed daily to prevent disease (which also serves to fatten them).
Various drugs are given to these animals to deal with the stress of such an existence, as well as a variety of chemicals to enhance their flavor and appearance. All these substances are transmitted to humans who consume poultry and eggs.
There is an increasing trend to confine dairy and beef cows on small feedlots or in highly restrictive pens, and most of the milk, pork and beef destined for consumers come from cows and pigs that are given antibiotics, hormones and other growth promoting chemicals.
Animal sources of nutrients vs. Plant sources
Do young children need to eat animal foods to get the nutrients they need to grow normally and stay healthy? We can get an answer to this question by focusing on five nutrients that are essential to human health, comparing their availability from plant and animal sources and looking at various sources to determine how much of these nutrients children need.
Protein from animal sources was once thought to be superior to protein from plant sources. This is because egg and other animal sources of protein contain all nine of the amino acids that cannot be synthesized in the human digestive tract and must be provided through the diet.
A link between the consumption of animal foods and the onset of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments has been established; these foods contain a high amount of saturated fats as well as protein. This can have a doubly negative effect for some: there is evidence that excess protein in itself may contribute to the onset of cancers of the breast, colon, rectum uterus and prostrate.
Excess protein is also related to kidney damage: since unused protein cannot be stored by the body as fat, its breakdown products must be filtered by kidneys. This overworks the organ and speeds up destruction of kidney tissue even in people who are healthy otherwise.
Fiber is the indigestible parts of food that the body passes in the stool; whole grains, fruits and vegetables are rich in dietary fiber, while animal foods contain virtually no fiber at all.
There is also evidence that fiber containing foods, particularly water-soluble fiber as contained in oatmeal and beans, can actually lower cholesterol levels. One theory is that fiber signals the liver to produce less cholesterol; it may also bind with cholesterol in the intestines, preventing its re-absorption into the body.
In any case, whole grains contain no saturated fats or cholesterol, so increasing the intake of these foods and lowering the intake of animal foods will lower the amounts of fat and cholesterol ingested.
Calcium is an essential nutrient in building healthy bones and teeth, but there is controversy over how much calcium children need and what is the best source of this mineral.
Milk and dairy foods do contain high amounts of calcium: a cup of whole cow’s milk has almost 300 milligrams and an ounce of cheddar cheese has 204 milligrams. How does this compare to plant sources?
A cup of cooked broccoli contains 178 milligrams of calcium, half a cup of tofu 258 milligrams and two slices of whole wheat bread has 60 milligrams. Plant foods have the advantage of being low in fats and cholesterol, while milk and dairy sources of calcium are high in saturated fats: even low fat milk has 31% of its calories as fat.
Consumption of dairy foods also has been linked to the onset of diabetes, internal bleeding in the colon, asthma and other allergies, as discussed previously.
Anemia is a widespread problem in the world, particularly among pregnant women and younger children in poor regions. According to the World Health Organization, approximately half the children and 59% of pregnant women living in developing countries are anemic. The problem is due to loss of blood through the intestines, a low intake of iron and its poor absorption.
The WHO lists the ingestion of animal foods and vitamin C as promoters of iron absorption, and they recommend the consumption of some meat to prevent iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency is over-emphasized in developed countries because of the influence of vitamin manufacturers, industries that produce iron fortified breads and cereals and the beef lobby.
Excess iron is of greater concern; this condition can release free radicals from cells which damage surrounding tissue and can cause heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
Do children need animal foods to get enough iron? There are many studies in vegetarian populations where the iron level are lower than they are in a meat-eating population, but they’re certainly adequate–more than adequate in many cases.
Fruits are an excellent source of vitamin C (which aids iron absorption), and most vegetables contain more iron per calorie than animal sources. For example, sirloin steak, ground beef, chicken, pork chops and perch all contain less than 2 milligrams of iron per 100 calories; spinach and beet greens have over 11 milligrams of iron per 100 calories. Broccoli and green peppers, popular foods among young children, have over 3 milligrams of iron per 100 calories, and dairy products contain virtually no iron.
The most common source of vitamin B12 is animal foods; it is produced by bacteria in animal’s intestines and disperses throughout their body and is contained in their muscles, organs and milk. Some B12 is present in fermented plant foods, such as miso and tempeh.
A prolonged B12 deficiency can cause pernicious anemia and neurological damage in humans, and has been part of the rationale that people continue need to eat some animal products.
Many vegans continue to enjoy good health even after years on the diet, possibly because their bodies were able to absorb B12 synthesized in their own intestines; also it is possible for the body to store a several year supply of this vitamin.
Young children that consume dairy or even a limited amount of animal products are at a very low risk for a B12 deficiency. The WHO recommends a dietary allowance of only 1 milligrams daily for three-to six-year old, and adds that the vitamin does not have to be ingested every day. Children who consume no animal foods at all can take a supplement with B12 extracted from plant sources. Nursing mothers who maintain a vegan diet should take a B12 supplement to insure that their infant gets an adequate amount of this essential nutrient.