Death By Veganism

From the NY Times OpEd:

I was once a vegan. But well before I became pregnant, I concluded that a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible. You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.

Indigenous cuisines offer clues about what humans, naturally omnivorous, need to survive, reproduce and grow: traditional vegetarian diets, as in India, invariably include dairy and eggs for complete protein, essential fats and vitamins. There are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long run.

Protein deficiency is one danger of a vegan diet for babies. Nutritionists used to speak of proteins as “first class” (from meat, fish, eggs and milk) and “second class” (from plants), but today this is considered denigrating to vegetarians.

The fact remains, though, that humans prefer animal proteins and fats to cereals and tubers, because they contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio. This is not true of plant proteins, which are inferior in quantity and quality — even soy.

13 Comments

  1. I think the OpEd piece says many things against what the mainstream nutrition organizations say, and there are no references to back any of this up.

    For instance, the leading dietetic orgs in the U.S. and Canada:
    “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.”
    from their position paper on Vegetarianism: http://www.eatright.org/cps/rde/xchg/ada/hs.xsl/advocacy_933_ENU_HTML.htm

  2. it’s a bit hard to parse out how much of my dislike for this article is because i disagree with its agenda and tone, and how much is because it represents pseudoscience. but anyway, it’s rubbish. a few points:

    the distinction between “first-class” and “second-class” proteins was not abandoned for reasons of political correctness. protein deficiency is not a risk. i just spent a good 20 minutes doing lit searches on pubmed. yes, there is a risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. yes, a totally vegan diet without nutritional supplements is not appropriate for a pregnant woman or an infant and carries a risk (which she completely exaggerates). but everything else about this article is wrong. can the author point to any peer-reviewed evidence specifically linking a vegan diet to protein deficiency? or specific evidence backing up her other claims? on her website the only source she lists for these opinions is an interview with a single GP, and the quotation she provided is far less critical of veganism than her op-ed turned out ().

    she makes it sound urgent by saying there have been 3 convictions of vegan parents in the last 4 years (citation?), but neglects to take into consideration how an incidence of less than one patient per year (NB: she says conviction of parents, not death or injury of child) compares to the vastly greater incidence of nutritional neglect foisted on children by meat-eating parents. a serious logical error (let’s talk about statistics and odds-ratios, not anecdotes, ok? you can find a handful of examples to prove anything, like the 93-year-old aunt who smoked like a chimney all her life). she makes it sound like this is the fate of all vegan children. that is unequivocally not the truth. let’s talk about the percentage of nutritional deficiency cases out of all vegan children. and let’s also mention the health benefits of veganism (my lit search turned up folate deficiency is twice as common in omnivores as it is in vegans, and veganism is sure to share a host of health benefits with simple vegetarianism–these can be found with a cursory google-scholar search).

    the other quest i spent 20 minutes on is trying to find out what the hell are this woman’s credentials. guess what. she grew up on a farm. she started a bunch of farmer’s markets (running a company that makes $6 million a year according to her website–wonder what her book sales amount to?). that’s it. not one iota of medical or scientific training that i could find (and i did look). no mention of what her major was in college, even, and in fact, no mention of whether she went to college. she did publish a book, though. to encourage people to buy from farmer’s markets.

    and as was exhaustively pointed out on the earlier post about this, the case Planck’s using as her straw man is a pair of parents who according to their prosecutor just didn’t feed the child enough. once again, all together now: the kid did not die of veganism, the kid died of starvation. our media decided that veganism would get more links and advertising revenue.

    stupid, irresponsible, misleading, and factually inaccurate propaganda about our health and nutrition from a seemingly unimaginably unqualified business-woman looking out for her next book sales. but good call, nytimes. thanks to your sensational headline, it’s #3 on your most-emailed list of articles, almost adjacent to some actual journalism.

    not everyone has the scientific background and critical thinking experience to evaluate (i.e. debunk) Planck’s agenda, sadly. in the public’s mind, this is just one more sound bite to steer them into the maw of unprecedented, ecologically draining, factory-farmed, meat consumption.

  3. many thanks to Chris for instantaneously fixing my link snafu above. i wanted to provide a link to Planck’s website: http://www.ninaplanck.com/

    also, there are some excellent LTE rebuttals in the nytimes today. not surprisingly to me, the well-written letters criticize Planck’s unresearched claptrap, while the vapid, poorly-written letters support her:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/23/opinion/l23vegan.html

    sorry to anyone who had trouble because of my formatting error.

  4. The key point here, methinks, is the bit about their diet being “well planned.” If you assume that they put as much effort into planning their diet, as they did in actually reproducing, chances are they’ll have a problem. The vegan/vegetarian crowd does pay more attention to their diets, than the average, BigMac-gobbling slob.

    Richard Dawkins thinks it wrong to label a child a Christian or a Muslim. They should be allowed to make an informed decision at a later point in life, rather than have it bestowed upon them by their parents, as a matter of course. We’re all born atheists. We’re also born omnivores, so the same thing applies there.

    And I beg your pardon, but “stupid, irresponsible, misleading, and factually inaccurate propaganda” isn’t exactly unheard of amongst the vegetarian/vegan crowd… Equating eating meat with eating feces, dressing up in a cow outfit and harassing diners at Outback. Peta. Pseudoscientific claims about how humans are actually herbivores (because you can tell, from our teeth!).

    As far as the tone and agenda of the article — I seem to sense some of that in passage, also “…steer them into the maw of unprecedented, ecologically draining, factory-farmed, meat consumption.”

  5. would you argue that a parent should let an infant make all her or his own decisions from birth? i’d agree, as an atheist, that i wouldn’t want my child raised believing in a deity for which there’s no evidence. however, i would want my child raised with guidance on evidence-based social, moral, and ecological justice and personal health.

    don’t equate the principle with all those espousing it. it would also be really smart for us to grow hemp in this country, but you wouldn’t know that from talking to most of the people who support that vocally. not to mention you shouldn’t confuse passion with stupidity: the adamantly vegan and animal-rights crowds may be naive and sensationalistic, but in many ways their rationales are internally consistent, based on facts, and worth hearing, unlike Planck’s. and by the way, looking at human physiology to try to figure out what diet we were selected for is not pseudoscience (as far as i’m aware, the conclusion is we were designed to eat whatever we could use our big brains to get). anyway, if Planck had any valid backing for her opinions, i’d be happy to consider them.

    yes, you picked up on my negative tone and agenda about factory farmed meat consumption. but i’ve got facts and sound reasoning to justify that tone. Planck can’t say the same thing. she flouts the scientific consensus on nutrition based on purely anecdotal experiences, and acts like that’s the appropriate way to make dietary recommendations in worldwide-circulated press. also note that while i acknowledged the tone and agenda in Planck’s op-ed, what i rebutted was the content.

    i should point out that Planck and i do agree about factory farming and industrialized food. i’m sad she didn’t point out her stance on it in this op-ed, since this is a far more serious health issue than veganism (by several–no, make that many orders of magnitude). maybe that view is starting to get in the way of her “beef–it’s what’s for dinner; god bless the meat and dairy councils” campaign.

  6. I’m just glad she thought about the health of her baby first, in spite of her commitment to veganism…taking the time to learn about and think about what it takes to at least build a healthy human brain is a factor in the practice of vegetarianism and veganism. Now, excuse me whilst I scarf down the pork loin I just grilled…

  7. Le sacre, the other thing she fails to mention is that the convicted parents are not ordinary vegans- they are almost invariably raw foodists who did not feed their infants enough calories. Some I believe failed even to breastfeed, instead relying on juices. That isn’t vegan, it’s stupid, just like the braintrust who feed their infants koolaid.

  8. would you argue that a parent should let an infant make all her or his own decisions from birth?

    No, I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. There are two different issues here — nutrition, and ethics. Creating a healthy diet for a child is a good thing, but deciding their ideology for them is a different issue.

    Furthermore, a healthy diet has no forbidden foods, and can easily incorporate food that is less healthy than others. The vegetarian/vegan stance is one of extremism: no bad stuff, ever — and not just because it is bad for you — because it is bad for the animals, or the environment. If you want to make that decision on your own behalf, fine. To make it on behalf of a child that could be convinced that Santa Clause exists — not so fine.

    In my own experience, I’ve seen almost as much self-righteous resentment and overall batty behavior amongst the Meat-is-Murder crowd as I have with the crucifix-junkies…

  9. There’s no doubt that a vegan diet can provide all that’s needed; there’s also no doubt that it’s a fuck of a lot harder to achieve (and also a fuck of a lot more expensive, since you need to source a wide variety of foodstuffs which are likely to be hard to obtain in many places) than when you inclde animal proteins.

    Those who do choose to feed their children on vegan diets (and veggie diets, for that matter) or to follow them when pregnant or breastfeeding have a duty to ensure that the diet s truly complete and balanced, and that means putting the work in. All parents share that same responsibility, though, and those following omnvorous diets have plenty of their own nutritional pitfalls to avoid.

    There’s nothing ‘natural’ about a vegan diet, but as omnivores we’re well-equipped to derive nutrition from a wide range of sources so we don’t really need to fret that much about ‘natural’.

    Personally I think veganism rather daft – high-principled, yes, but still daft. But I don’t think it’s stupid. Not on the scale of many health-fad diets like that Atkins rubbish, anyway.

  10. “Furthermore, a healthy diet has no forbidden foods,”

    Nonsense. It’s that sort of thinking that gets us the American bad diet attitudes- vegans/vegetarians=bad, double bacon cheeseburger=part of a healthy diet. I think it’s ridiculous that it’s considered acceptable to jump on people who are tyring to be healthy, even if they are a touch over-zealous, but we give the other ninety-percent of greasy, unhealthy slobs a free pass.

    A healthy diet does not have unhealthy food in it. There is no other kind. Which healthy foods are chosen is obviously individual choice- but if you are eating fried food, processed junk, sugar-laden sodas and cereals, you do not have a healthy diet. Vegans are not the folks burdening the health care system with their dietary-induced disease- one out of three Americans dies of perfectly preventable heart disease, 20 million have diabetes, and 3 million americans are morbidly obese. Vegans are NOT the problem.

  11. You are making a perfectly valid, and perhaps a very important point (that I failed to point out) with the bit about “double bacon cheeseburger=part of a healthy diet.”

    Can a double bacon cheeseburger be part of a healthy diet? Technically speaking — of course it can… But obviously, a double bacon cheeseburger doesn’t contribute any more to a healthy diet, than say, sitting on your couch and eating cheesy-poofs contributes to a healthy exercise program (rest is important, yeah?)

    The “…part of a healthy diet”-slogan is insincere, disingenuous, and overall — as a marketing slogan, fucking clever. And you’re quite right to mention it.

    I think it’s ridiculous that it’s considered acceptable to jump on people who are tyring to be healthy, even if they are a touch over-zealous, but we give the other ninety-percent of greasy, unhealthy slobs a free pass.

    Ya know, I kinda like it when someone calls bullshit, or “nonsense” on one of my posts — because it inevitably turns out that their post will contain a lot of bullshit… Even this one — which I said, includes an important point.

    I’ve never had any of those “other ninety-percent of greasy, unhealthy slobs” try to convert me to their lifestyle. I’ve never had them try to convince me that home cooking is bad, and that I should only eat junk food. Those “greasy, unhealthy slobs” have never told me that my beercan chicken is akin to eating dog poo, whereas KFC’s extra crispy rules…

    You get the point about extremism, yet?

  12. “I’ve never had any of those “other ninety-percent of greasy, unhealthy slobs” try to convert me to their lifestyle.”

    I have a real hard believing that- especially when the usual response to hearing someone is a vegetarian (or just a general health food advocate) is for everyone else to make defensive cracks- usually, the mere mention of vegetartianism is enough to make people think they’re being proselytized to or chided. But the funny thing is, I don’t see dozens of billboards in my neighborhood advocating hummus, and I’m not seeing fifty-six ads a week exhorting me to buy carrots.

    I don’t see people at parties asking the fat guy whether he’s developed diabetes- they’re all too busy grilling the vegetarian on how they get enough protein and making “beef, it’s what’s for dinner” jokes.

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