Is it nutritionally risky to put babies and children on a vegan diet, or is it the best thing for them?
“When a mother eats meat, her breast-fed child’s brain grows faster and she is able to wean the child at an earlier age, allowing her to have more children faster,” according to a new article by Swedish researchers in the journal PLoS One that links eating meat to evolution. The article doesn’t speak to whether mothers should still eat meat for their babies’ health. Reading about the study, though, brought to mind a recent story about a French baby who died at 11 months from malnutrition. Her vegan parents “have been charged with ‘neglect or food deprivation followed by death’ for only feeding her breast milk,” according to Parenting, prompting the publication to ask: “Do you think the vegans deserve to go to jail? Do you think this is a case of principles run amok, or do you think lack of information about proper nutrition for nursing moms is to blame?”
In a blog post on Friday, I posed a similar question and quoted Nina Planck, author of “The Farmer’s Market Cookbook,” who’d argued in the New York Times’ Room For Debate that “we have extraordinary needs for nutrients not found in plants. They include fully formed vitamins A and D, vitamin B12, and the long-chain fatty acids found in fish.”
It may not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I don’t eat meat (I also gave up dairy in January). But then again, I’m not carrying or feeding a baby. I think Planck offered a perspective worth ruminating.
Several readers disagreed, taking me to task for quoting Planck.
On our discussion board, reader DiaKristy wrote: “One thing is for sure: Nina Planck doesn’t want you to be a vegan [mommy] -- or a vegan for that matter. That’s because Nina’s husband is Robert Kaufelt, [proprietor] of ‘Murray’s Cheese Store’ (and Charcuterie) in New York. Yes, veganism is definitely real, real, real bad for some people. Hits them right in their wallets.”
To which reader Nick Roberts replied: “Actually Kristy, Nina used to be a vegetarian then a vegan, until she realized it was wrecking her health. She covers it in her book, Real Food. Veganism is bad for you, unless you INTEND to be infertile. No source of agriculture [so] without [its] ethical dilemmas to the environment. Lastly, pointing out that her husband owns a small, neighborhood cheese store and that she rails against it for this purpose is delusional. She makes more from [selling] books than her husband does from [selling] cheese. Get a life.”
And so the debate went through the weekend.
“I was vegan during my first pregnancy and developed pre-eclampsia due to protein deficiency. Tried again with 3rd pregnancy and developed severe anemia. [E]ither condition could have had [devastating] effects if allowed to continue,” wrote AnneGrossBeal.
"[P]ersonally, I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and a vegan for about 6 months and am extremely healthy. I look 10 years younger than I am and have amazing amounts of energy. I have numerous friends who have vegan children who are rarely sick and very healthy. I’m not saying it’s not possible to eat meat and dairy and be healthy, just more difficult. Don’t demonize veganism. Spend a little more time thinking before talking out of your hat,” argued ChumleyX.
One commenter, Virginia Messina, and I spoke offline. “The science tells us that vegan diets are safe at all stages of the lifecycle. Nutrition experts know this, and those who want to explore issues related to vegan nutrition should rely on input from those experts, not on the views of uninformed food writers,” argued Messina, a dietician and the author of “Vegan for Life” and “The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets.”
So, where does Planck get it wrong? "[Planck] insists that certain nutrients like vitamins A and D, omega-3 fats and carnitine are available only from animal foods,” says Messina, “That’s not true for any of these nutrients. We humans easily convert beta-carotene in plant foods to vitamin A. As little as one-quarter cup of carrot juice or a half-cup of sweet potatoes provides a day’s worth of this nutrient. Meat eaters have no advantage regarding vitamin D either. Because there is so little naturally occurring vitamin D in foods, nearly all Americans -- vegans and omnivores alike -- get it from supplements, fortified foods or sun exposure.”
What about breastfeeding? “There is no reason why breast milk of vegan mothers would be low in carnitine, an amino acid that is not required in the diet since humans can manufacture it in their cells,” Messina explains. “Likewise, the jury is out on whether we need a dietary source of the omega-3 fat DHA, another compound we can make ourselves. In fact, generations of babies have been raised on cow’s milk formulas that contained no added DHA. However, vegans can easily add this fat to their diet by using DHA supplements derived from microalgae. That’s where fish -- and ultimately people who eat fish -- get theirs.”
And the ever-important vitamin B12? “Vegan women who supplement with vitamin B12 have healthy pregnancies and produce milk that meets the needs of their babies,” Messina says. Further: “Nutrition-related problems are serious concerns in our meat- and dairy-centric culture and are related to dramatic increases in obesity and diabetes among young people. In comparison, making sure that your vegan child takes a daily vitamin B12 supplement hardly seems like a big deal.”
Regardless of whether parents are raising their children as herbivores or omnivores -- a debate that’s long divided doctors -- one thing both sides must agree on is that the onus falls on parents to provide their children with all the nutrients they need. “Parents of vegan children need to give a little bit of extra attention to certain nutrients,” says Messina. “But so do parents of children who eat meat and dairy foods. Toddlers who consume excessive amounts of cow’s milk, for example, are at risk for iron deficiency, a common problem among omnivore children.”
Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter: @alexletellier