Jacob Eaton, a PhD student in Public Health at the Brown School, recently authored a literature review, published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, to explore if a diet that contains animal-source foods supports growth and development in small children.
Animal-source foods have been shown to improve both growth and cognitive functions in school-aged children. Fewer controlled trials, however, have been done on their effects in the diets of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years old, when nutrition is especially important for growth and development.
Eaton—with co-author Lora Ionnatti, associate professor at the Brown School—examined six studies from across the globe that focused on the effects of animal-source foods on 3,036 children from 6 months to 5 years old. The goal was to compare the effects of animal-based protein interventions with both cereal-based foods and what happened when children received no nutritional intervention.
All of the studies lasted a year or less; some studies had issues that made it complicated to draw conclusions.
“There was not a lot of consistency, and there was high bias based on funding sources,” Eaton explained, citing industry-sponsored research. In some small studies children fed animal-source foods grew better than those receiving no intervention or a fortified cereal snack, but in larger trials there was no difference between groups.
Ultimately, the review found that the existing evidence is inconclusive and more studies are needed.
Eaton, who became interested in how nutrition can affect health while working in Kenya, hopes that his research will spur additional studies. “Future findings are very likely to change our confidence in the effects of animal-source foods on growth and weight gain,” he stated.
“We spend a lot of money on healthcare to address diseases, and we can do better when it comes to leveraging nutrition.”