A new study shows that babies fed pureed pork and beef, beginning at 5 months, grew nearly an inch more than babies eating dairy.
But should parents feed babies pureed pork chops and steak? Expert opinions vary.
"I would not make meat one of the first foods I provided my child," said Sarah Francis, an Iowa State University nutritionist and mom of a 5-month and 2½-year-old.
Francis said she's concerned 5 months is too early to feed meat to infants whose digestive systems are still developing.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breast-milk or formula be a baby's sole nutritional source for about 6 months, and a primary source through the first year.
Minghua Tang, the lead researcher of the University of Colorado study, said parents typically don't consider red meat as a first food for their babies.
But, she said, parents should "not restrict your options to cereals," based on the study's outcomes that showed meat-fed babies grew at a faster rate and without risk of being overweight.
"We're not telling parents to load an infant’s diet with red meat, but to consider animal-sourced protein as an option," said Tang, adding that the study's sample size of 64 was small and requires additional research. Half the babies were fed dairy protein and half, red meat.
The study was supported in part by the National Pork Board.
Francis plans to follow a traditional food plan, giving her baby cereal, vegetables and fruits, then meat, even though recommendations around when to introduce different foods have relaxed.
"Before 1, food is for fun," the ISU associate professor said, adding that parents should introduce babies to a variety of nutritional foods with different textures.
"Feed them what you want, just wait until 6 months," Francis said.
Christopher Etscheidt, a pediatrician at Mercy Clinics Waukee, said he begins talking with parents about introducing solid foods to babies at 4 months.
And as the father of a 4-month-old, he said he's curious about introducing meat earlier.
"I don't see why not," he said. "The important thing is to introduce a wide variety of fruits, veggies and protein sources."
Etscheidt said doctors often recommend introducing cereals first because they're fortified with iron "and anemia is a concern," especially with breastfeeding mothers.
"But introducing meats would be good for that," he said.
Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, worries about how much protein babies in the study consumed.
Parents increased their babies' protein consumption 50 percent, from 2 grams per kilogram of weight per day before the study to 3 grams, during the seven months of research.
The high-protein diet might be too much for young kidneys to process, Levin said.
But Tang said protein made up 15 percent of the babies' energy, within dietary guidelines for infants, and it provided iron, zinc and other micronutrients that babies need.
She said the University of Colorado team plans to follow up on the study's infants to see if they've maintained the growth advantage. And they would like to expand how many babies are in future studies as well as look at whether the source of the protein matters.
Tang said the World Health Organization recognizes the need for proteins from meat, poultry, fish and eggs for healthy babies.
"We’re interested in how to promote optimal growth in infants and toddlers," Tang said, especially globally, where stunting affects an estimated 162 million children younger than 5.
Levin questions giving red meat to babies when a WHO agency ruled in 2015 that it's a probable carcinogen.
"You don’t expose your baby to cigarette smoke or tobacco. Sure, they’re not going to get lung cancer tomorrow, but you don’t do that because you know it’s a carcinogen and can cause cancer over time.
"It’s the same thing with meats," said Levin, whose Washington, D.C., group promotes a plant-based diet. "You’re setting the kids up for diseases that are preventable."
Francis said parents should expose their babies to a variety of healthy foods.
"It's all a game of balance," Francis said. "If you’re promoting fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, your child will have a good start."
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