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Children whose mothers did not eat meat during pregnancy are more likely to drink and use drugs, new research could indicate. A study found 15-year-olds in Britain were almost twice as likely to indulge in underage drinking and smoking if their mothers did not eat meat – linked to a deficiency in vitamin B12. They were also nearly three times as likely to be using cannabis, compared to children of women who ate meat daily while expecting. There are many drawbacks to eating a diet rich in meat, such as a link to bowel cancer. And the study has not found a definitive link, as the findings were ‘disproportionally’ affected by women who had a gene causing deficiency of vitamin B12. But lead author of the study Dr Joseph Hibbeln, a nutritional neuroscientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Maryland, said: ‘We found higher scores on the maternal ‘vegetarian’ dietary pattern during pregnancy were associated with greater likelihoods of substance misuse among their 15-year-old offspring.’


‘He said one way for vegetarian mums to counter this could be taking supplements of vitamin B12, found naturally in large amounts in beef and lamb. The findings, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, indicate that adding vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 to foods may help make sure nutritional needs are met.


Dr Hibbeln and colleagues followed more than 5,000 British women and discovered a link between less frequent consumption of meat during pregnancy and more alcohol, cannabis and cigarette use among their teenage offspring. Vitamin B12 is essential for the body to metabolise folic acid, a nutrient vital for the development of a healthy foetus. Dr Hibbeln said reducing meat consumption is often advised, but inadvertent nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy can affect development of the baby’s brain.


Participants in the the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), based at the University of Bristol, provided food frequency questionnaire data from which dietary patterns were derived. Alcohol, cannabis and tobacco use of the children was evaluated once they had reached 15 years of age. Dr Hibbeln said: ‘Lower maternal meat consumption was associated with greater problematic substance use among 15 year old offspring in dose response patterns.’ He said that in general, a vegetarian diet is associated with improved health among adults.


But avoiding nutrient dense meats can reduce intake of vitamin B12, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and zinc, particularly in young women of childbearing age. Vitamin B12 is mainly available from meats and shellfish and up to 62 per cent of vegetarians are deficient in this nutrient during pregnancy. Dr Hibbeln said: ‘Among Western populations, infants of vitamin B12 deficient mothers have poor brain growth, developmental regression, irritability, thrive poorly and demonstrate residual deficits in cognitive and social development.’


He added: ‘This study identifies low meat consumption in the prenatal period as potentially modifiable risk factor for adolescent substance use. ‘In identifying vitamin B12 insufficiencies as highly likely to have a contributing role to our findings, greater meat consumption need not be advised to modify this risk. ‘For example, fortification of foods with vegetarian sources of cobalamin and more widespread use of supplements may be low cost and readily feasible interventions.’

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