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Do Babies Need to Eat Meat?

A federal committee’s recommendations for what babies and toddlers should eat highlight growing concerns about nutrient deficiencies and later obesity. But advice that youngsters eat a significant amount of meat is spurring a backlash from advocates of plant-based diets.

The recommendations encourage parents to feed their children more whole grains—and fewer refined ones—along with fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products and no added sugar. They also suggest that babies and toddlers eat meat as well as poultry, seafood and eggs to meet the needs for critical nutrients for growth and development, particularly iron, zinc and choline.

The advice is part of a process of revising the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It’s the first time the guidelines will include recommendations for kids under two. Dietary recommendations are a fractious topic right now, with debates over the impact of carbohydrates, meat and many other foods.

The goal of the committee’s recommendations for babies and toddlers is to lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating, says Kathryn Dewey, professor emerita in the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, who chaired the birth to 24 months subcommittee. “If we can establish those healthier patterns right away, it will get them used to eating these types of foods,” says Sharon M. Donovan, professor of nutrition and health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the committee.

The committee, which was composed of 20 academics and doctors, released its recommendations in July. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services will review them and issue final guidelines by the end of the year. The dietary guidelines have a wide impact: They shape school lunch programs, mold state and local health-promotion efforts, and influence what food companies produce.

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The baby and toddler recommendations have drawn some criticism. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization that advocates plant-based diets, disagreed with the committee’s emphasis on animal products. “There isn’t scientific evidence to suggest somehow infants would be better off consuming meat, seafood, eggs and dairy,” says Susan Levin, a registered dietitian and the organization’s director of nutrition education. She says that infants and toddlers can get iron, for example, from foods like fortified cereals, spinach and lentils.

For adults, federal recommendations suggest eating less red meat—a diet high in red meat has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. The baby/toddler committee decided that developmental needs for kids younger than two are different, says Ronald Kleinman, chief of the department of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of the federal committee. “The most important message is that we eat somewhat differently at each life stage,” he said.

The recommendations reflect a shift in how doctors think about feeding babies who are ready to move beyond breast milk or formula alone, says Dr. Kleinman. Before “it was a