As a new study claims that parents who feed their children vegan diets could be harming their health, Lindsay Jennings looks at what we should be feeding our kids.

LIKE many children, Jackie Craft's son played out with his friends in the snow yesterday afternoon, sledging and snowballing, revelling in his unexpected day-pff school. But while nine-year-old Sam was running around, expelling some of his considerable energy, a new study was casting doubt on the diet he has grown up on.

From the moment he was born, Jackie fed her son a vegetarian diet, replacing fish and meat with pulses, beans, bread, fruit and vegetables. But, if a new study is to be believed, his development may have been harmed by a non-meat diet.

According to an American nutritionist, parents who give their children strict vegetarian diets are causing them to suffer "impaired growth". It follows a study conducted by Professor Lindsay Allen, from the University of California, which showed that children in parts of Africa were transformed both mentally and physically after they had two spoonfuls of meat added to their diet per day.

Over a period of two years, the study found that the children almost doubled their muscle development and showed dramatic improvements in their mental skills. In particular, it was "unethical", she said, for parents to impose a vegan lifestyle on their children, denying them milk, cheese and butter as well as meat.

From Jackie's view point, her decision to bring her child up on a vegetarian diet was taken for ethical reasons. Jackie, 44, from Aycliffe Village, near Darlington, has been a non-meat eater for about 20 years. Throughout her pregnancy, she remained a vegetarian and when Sam was born, she took the decision to raise him on the same diet.

"At the time, there were some health visitors who weren't too happy about it," she recalls. "I believed what I was eating was good for me. I did feel a certain amount of pressure because there was a feeling he would miss out if he didn't have products with meat or fish in but the vegetarian diet was the best for him, and he thrived on it.

'IT'S hard to believe that he would have been any more active or healthy had he had meat. There is always some scare story coming out saying one thing is better than another, but being vegetarian has worked for me and my son."

It is easy to see why parents can get confused over the right foods to give their children. A quick flick over some of yesterday's headlines included the worrying "38 foods added to cancer dye list," and "Bird flu has pandemic potential". One study may tell us that the pollution levels in salmon are toxic, while another may champion the benefits of omega 3 oils in the fish. With this in mind, how can parents find the best diets for their children?

Gina Gorvett is a senior nutritionist for Scolarest, based at Newton Aycliffe, which provides catering services for 1,270 schools across the UK, including 257 in County Durham. Her job entails analysing Scolarest's school menus and ensuring that they are nutritionally balanced. Their diets are based on eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

Says Gina: "From our point of view, we try to get children to eat a balance of everything, such as fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and dairy, although it can be difficult to get children to eat a range of things from all the food groups.

"Ways to get them to eat healthily include chopping up food such as carrots so that they don't feel as if they're getting a massive portion of food at one time. Fresh orange and dried fruits can also help and smoothies with fresh products.

"We also try to do a lot around taster sessions. Often children don't choose to eat foods because they haven't tasted them before - in some of our London schools they don't even know what a carrot is. But we look at encouraging them to have a small amount of certain foods on their plate. If they don't like it, they don't like, but for some their tastes change."

A healthy diet does not mean eliminating all processed foods either, she says.

"You don't want them eating too much processed foods but, at the same time, if you knock off all the foods that they find acceptable then they start bringing in packed lunches with chocolate mousses and crisps," she says.

"And quite often they will take in a huge big bag of crisps instead of a normal sized one. So it's about finding a balance, and being positive and encouraging them to think about other things, such as yoghurts or fruit."

Gina also has concerns about a vegetarian diet among children, largely because it can be difficult to ensure the body is getting the correct nutrients.

'WITH vegetarian meals, there is a need to look further at diet, because I think, especially with teenagers, they can end up eliminating foods but not substituting them and relying on foods like cheese," she says. "They need to be eating things like beans, lentils and vegetarian substitutes. Nuts are also highly nutritious and very good for protein."

But Stephen Walsh, nutrition spokesperson for The Vegan Society and author of Plant Based Nutrition and Health, believes it is possible for non-meat eaters to have as balanced a diet as their meat-munching counterparts. He points to a study conducted by Kings College in London which looked at the diets of vegan children over 15 years and found that their growth levels were normal.

He says there are two main guidelines the society follows. One is that they don't just eat salads and fruit because that doesn't provide enough calories and variety for a child. The second is that vegetarians and vegans take in the vitamin B12, which is often found in meat, but can be found in fortified vegetarian options such as Marmite. Lack of B12 can cause anaemia and damage to the nervous system.

The society is, not surprisingly, critical of the findings of Prof Allen's study. Says Stephen: "If you go from such a lack of fruit and vegetables and enrich the diet by adding things to it then you will see improvements.

"The (Kings College) study which looked at the way vegan children grow up normally is the way science should work and not looking at some impoverished diet in Africa and jumping to conclusions."

Sam Craft chose to introduce meat to his own diet when he started going to school.

"Once he got to school and he saw what the other kids were having he decided he wanted to have meat, although he still eats vegetarian at home with me," Jackie says. "But in terms of him being vegetarian as he grew up, throughout the BSE and CJD scares, I sit back and thank God he didn't eat meat.

"It's also hard to believe that he would have been any more healthy or active had he had meat. The amount of energy he has - he certainly doesn't suffer."