Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Death By Veganism"

The New York Times recently ran this op-ed piece concerning the recent conviction of two vegan "parents" ( term used loosely! ) for starving their baby to death. I thought the writer here does a pretty good job of spelling out what should be common sense, which seems to be less and less common these days. As I hinted at before in comments about this tragedy, adults have the right to make whatever dietary choices for themselves they see fit, but they do NOT have the right to recklessly and irresponsibly endanger the lives and health of their children in the name of a diet that is based upon "moral foundations" that are dubious at best. I'm normally not too fond of the New York Times, but I've got to give them credit here for having the balls to run a piece that is so blunt and tells it like it is on this issue.


Jeff said...

I understand you're more interested in the ethics of diet than in the health arguments, but the American Dietetic Associaion (and other leading dietetic orgs) contradict Nina Planck and say that a well-planned vegan diet is okay:

"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."

Grizzly Bear said...

Hi Jeff
Thanks for your comments. I agree, a vegan diet can be safe, if, as the quote you gave says, it is well-planned. The main problem with vegan diets for infants and nursing and expectant mothers is vitamin B-12 deficiency. According to the Center for Disease Control, this deficiency can put infants at serious risk for developmental problems ( l ). A study done at University Children's Hospital in Basel, Switzerland on a nine month old infant nursed on breast milk from a strict vegan mother found serious infantile neurological disorders and seems to confirm this. This study was published in the European Journal of Pediatrics, January 1991. An abstract of the findings can be found here:
Parents MUST take the vitamin B-12 factor into consideration if they are to attempt to give a vegan diet to an infant. I would also state that just because a diet may be safe, that doesn't mean that it is ideal. Common sense would dictate that growing infants need a source of high-quality concentrated protein to sustain their development, and those high quality proteins best come from animal sources. I believe that my basic premise is true: it is irresponsible and immoral for parents to put a higher value on their own selfish ideological reasons than on what is best and optimal for their child's health and well-being.

Anonymous said...

Dietary veganism imposes greater risks and, therefore, burdens on certain human groups such as infants, children, adolescents, pregnant, lactating, peri- and post-menopausal women, and the elderly. Women, children, and seniors are at much greater risk, and thus have to take greater burdens, to meet a dietary vegan ideal.

It’s true that these nutritionally vulnerable groups can be healthy or healthier vegans, because most, or perhaps all, risks can be overcome with a well-planned diet. But, it remains that the risk of harm can only be overcome by imposing greater burdens on those groups. In some ways, then, one could argue (and it has been argued thus) that dietary veganism (and ethical vegetarianism) is unfair (and, therefore, unethical) to women and children, as well as people of lower economic means and of different culture and environmental circumstances.

There may need to be more research done on how different vegan diets affect different human populations of differing genders, lifecycles, and from different georegions. But, so far, nutritional evidence seems to suggest that those who would thrive best on vegan diets are young, adult, healthy males in their 20s through 50 who are also quite economically well off living in more affluent industrialized cultures. And, it seems to be, I think, largely adult males and people of more affluence in Western society that are espousing our modern rights-based/ethics-based vegan/vegetarian diets.

Healthy adult males are at an advantage because they have larger skeletons and because of their higher testosterone levels will better maintain bone health than women, who are more at risk than men for osteoporosis in mid and later life. Adult males have higher iron levels than women and so are less at risk for anemia in adolescence and adulthood than women, who experience periodic blood loss. Men don’t carry and feed growing fetuses in their bodies or nurse infants, which for women places considerable protein, vitamin, and mineral stresses. The health of the fetus depends on the health of the woman carrying the developing fetus, and nutritional deficiency in a vegan woman at the time of conception may impair fetal development and the health of a breast-feeding child. It is hard enough for an omni pregnant woman to be in optimal health. It’s even harder for a vegan mother-to-be. Pregnant vegan women are inevitably at greater nutritional risk for inadequate weight gain, low protein intake, inadequate vitamin and mineral intakes than their comparable omni cohorts. Diets that sustain adults, men and women, in good health are not always appropriate for infants and young children. Infants and young children have higher energy, vitamin, and mineral needs than adults because they are continuously growing and adding new tissue to their bodies. The effects of diets without adequate sources of certain vitamins and minerals in infancy and young childhood cannot be compensated for by later nutritional improvements or later supplementation.

Adolescents, too, need diets that are more dense in nutrients per kilocalorie because they undergo the pubertal growth spurt. Also gender differences in nutrient needs become more pronounced during adolescents. Even optimal vegan diets tend to be less nutrient dense, particularly with regards to calcium (for bone health; young females have built almost all of their bone by age 17 and by age 30 can begin to lose bone), iron (which plays a vital role in childhood development and maintenance of the CNS, organ function, and immune function, and in other areas of intellectual development, and vegan female adolescents and women are particularly sensitive to iron deficiency where plant sources are not as high or as easily absorbed as flesh food sources) and calories, and quite low in (good) fat. So, vegan infants, children, and adolescents are put at a greater nutritional risk than their comparable omni cohorts.

As we get over 50 years, we have different requirements for several nutrients and, again, there are gender differences. The elderly have lower calorie intakes and their intakes of protective nutrients tend to be lower, but their nutritional needs may be greater because of disease, especially age-related chronic degenerative diseases. While some plant-based diets may be helpful to middle-aged and older sufferers of certain diseases like CAD and hypertension, e.g., vegan diets can compromise further aging associated changes and age-related disease.

A “well-planned vegan diet” for those nutritionally vulnerable groups often means a great deal of care in terms of adding kilocalories and using fortified foods and supplementary sources of vitamins and minerals since plant food don’t contain known or reliable sources of them. It also means for infants, children, pregnant or lactating women, seniors and those recovering from an illness or chronic disease, the assistance of a medical professional like a doctor and/or a registered dietician and the educational and financial ability to comply with their advice. This is fine if one has access to medical care and other nutritional and medical services, money to buy supplements (which are expensive and may, at times, have to be prescribed by a physician to ensure appropriate dose/use and avoid overdose), fortified foods, and other quality vegan foods in variety and plenty – the production of which is dependent upon a complex and expensive food system involving food research, agricultural quality and safety, production and distribution systems, and other technologies (with its own animal and environmental consequences).

When vegan literature says one can get the appropriate nutrients and calories from a plant-based diet just as easily and with a bit of good planning and without too much ado just as one can on a meat-based or omni diet, as if with no real extra burden, this is not entirely true. Those most vulnerable are those who are least able to make choices about proper diets and those who are dependent upon others to make informed choices for them or to help them in getting proper nutrition. Babies and growing children, women, the sick and elderly are at greater risk and need to work much harder is sustaining optimum health on a vegan diet that is, by nature, less nutrient dense and lower in good types of fat than a meat-based diet. Even among vegans, it is vegan infants and growing children, women, and the elderly, especially, are at greater risk than omni folks and so carry a bigger nutritional burden than the remaining vegan group, of adult men. Going back to vegan expectant and nursing mothers and vegan babies and children, while there may be “success stories,” I’m not sure if it’s a risk worth taking on one’s children. Studies quoted even in pro-vegan and vegetarian literature of vegan communities of vegan pregnancies and vegan children show that those vegan children had lower health status in terms of what is normally regarded as optimal weight, growth rate, etc., than a matched cohort (a healthy omni child). Also, there are studies of pregnant women of predominantly vegetarian cultures living in western countries showing that mothers were more deficient for important vitamins and minerals because of their avoidance of meat, milk, eggs, and fish. A well-planned diet can overcome the risks. But, the point is that the risks are greater to vegan children and pregnant women (whose health status affect their unborn and nursing children) than their omni equivalents, and more so if those needed health services and care measures are not as available or affordable. It’s hard enough for omni expectant and nursing mothers and parents of children and adolescents to ensure the nutritional wellbeing of their children. Why make it more difficult, or rather, why place additional risk on the growth and development of ones child just to meet a vegan ideal.