May 21, 2007

Why Are All The Crazy Parents Vegan?

If 2006 was the peak year for meat-eating meatheads to leave their kids with the valet parking guy, I really hope 2004 was the high watermark for vegan parenting stupidity. That's the year Coney Island vegan dad Raphael Spindell kidnapped his son away from his mother-in-law--who had custody, because the kid was deemed malnourished--so that he and his wife could go live off the land in Belize or upstate or wherever. But at least the mom kept breastfeeding and kept the kid alive.

2004 is also the year Atlanta new parents Lamont Thomas and Jade Sanders starved their 6-week-old son Crown Shakur to death, not just by feeding him only soy milk and fruit juice, but by underfeeding and neglecting him.

The AP story makes this whole thing out to be about veganism, but the local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a more nuanced, if no less justifiable, view:

  • The soy milk and juice line above got all the play, but the couple also said they fed the kid breastmilk and soy milk formula.
  • Prosecutors had a vegan expert nutritionist testify that the baby's death was caused by underfeeding and neglect, not veganism: "The state's experts told the jury, which included four vegetarians, that regardless of what the couple fed the baby, Crown should have been fine if he'd been fed enough."
  • Thomas's mother said her son refused to take Crown to the hospital becuase he "wanted to raise the baby without interference from doctors." His lawyer also said "the couple worried about hospital germs."
  • Thomas's mother said her son has lost 10 lbs himself since receiving a mandatory life sentence for murder a couple of weeks ago, and she fears he'll die in prison soon, before he ever gets a chance for a retrial.

    A reformed [? lapsed? heretic?] vegan, Nina Planck, wrote an op-ed this weekend in the NY Times about why an adult vegan diet is not viable, either for pregnancy or for a newborn, or for a toddler. I would hope that's obvious to anyone. [ed. note: but since it isn't, and there are non-crazy vegans who have healthy babies, thank you very much, I'll just admit I'm tainted by a meat-centric worldview right now.]

    But this Crown Shakur case seems to be less about veganism and more about woefully unprepared, ill-equipped parents who fail to grasp the implications of their half-formed beliefs.

    Death By Veganism [nyt via kottke]
    Vegans parents sentenced to life for child murder []


    all very creepy. but shouldn't the question be: why are [so many] crazy vegans parents?

    [yeah, you'd think they'd be more zero-pop than that. But as soon as I posted this, I came up with a dozen different kinds of crazy people who shouldn't be parents but inexplicably are. ed.]

    I was at a first birthday party this weekend and the mother mentioned that the cake was sugar free. When I inquired how she'd managed it (I like to cook and I'm always looking for good tips), she said the cake was actually from a box and that the frosting was actually the sugar free part. Again I asked how she'd managed that (because it tasted pretty good), she said it was from apple juice concentrate. I pointed out that she meant it was just free of refined sugar, since apple juice is certainly not sugar free.

    This wouldn't be that worrisome except this same friend has recently become pregnant, distrusts doctors, and was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her first pregnancy.

    Unfortunately, I think most parents are ill-informed about nutrition (and many other things), and tradition is what keeps most of our kids from being completely screwed up. Once you completely leave the world of traditional parenting, you have to be incredibly well informed to compensate. Which is probably why it seems like vegans are often the crazy ones. It requires an enormous amount of education to be a healthy vegan (and I agree that I'm not sure you could raise a healthy vegan baby).

    [good points, especially about the effort. It's like people calling themselves "green" because they turn the water off while they brush their teeth. -ed.]

    Actually, it's not at all obvious to me how a vegan diet is not "viable" for pregnancy. Maybe you could elaborate. Our healthy, bright (non-vegan) two year old is certainly evidence to the contrary. Of course, we're neither crazy nor stupid, so we didn't try to feed her Smart Dogs and apple juice at six weeks old.

    [yeah, I had that leftover from my original starting point on this post. Planck makes a case, but frankly, I decided it was subjective and personal, with only references to "studies," not their findings, and ultimately too intertwined with her own pet theme about historical diets or some such. Jumping to such an unequivocal conclusion based on admittedly incomplete data is exactly what I so blithely criticized. Sorry, and thanks. So where's a vegan parent-to-be to turn for reliable nutritional information? -ed.]

    Thanks Greg. I'm sure there are studies that show vegan diets in childhood and/or pregnancy have a greater tendency to produce poor outcomes, but as Tim alluded to, it's probably more due to lack of care or education. If you do it right, it's not a problem, but doing it right is the problem for most people. Just because Safeway brand sandwich cookies are vegan doesn't make them a healthy choice.

    I can't remember the titles now because it was a few years ago and we gave the books away, but there are some good books about vegetarian pregnancy and childhood nutrition, and most books of that type also include information for vegans.

    I basically had to take over my wife's nutrition planning during her pregnancy, and make all her food. I do all the cooking anyway, but I had to be more planned and methodical, which is a good distraction during pregnancy anyway.

    The biggest challenge during a vegetarian or vegan pregnancy is protein (we aimed for 60g a day). And the second biggest challenge is not getting all that protein from soybeans, which is the default vegetarian protein source. Soybeans' phytoestrogen effects are something you want to moderate. So we used lots of beans, nuts, dal, etc. instead. There is also a fair bit of protein in most vegetables (a couple grams), which adds up over the course of a day. Iron was the other challenge for us, which we solved with lots of dark leafy greens. My wife gained just over 50 pounds during pregnancy.

    This is one of those stories that just sickens and disgusts me. I commented on it on my blog back on the 3rd. I won't post my comments because they aren't exactly safe, but needless to say, both of the parent will get what's coming to them in prison. I for one welcome it.

    Nina Planck should be ashamed that she used the neglect and eventual murder of a child to further her book sales. "I was once a vegan", she writes - as if she was led from the darkness.

    Nina Plank is not a nutritionist, a doctor, or a dietician. Her expertise is in farmers' markets, local food, and writing. Once a congressional staffer and speechwriter, Nina knows the business of spin.

    Could it be, that as the owner of "London Farmers' Markets", a $6 million annual business that makes much of it's money from the sales of whole milk, eggs, and meat, that Nina is protecting an income from a growing movement that focuses on plant-based foods?

    One thing that Nina and many vegans do agree on is that Farmers' Markets and organic, local foods are incredibly important to support (at least as far as the fruits, veggies, and plants go). Factory farms and agribusiness are responsible for the worst in animal cruelty and Franken-foods.

    The Shakur tragedy has nothing to do with veganism, per se. This is a case of horrible neglect. Any parent knows that soymilk and apple juice are not suitable as replacements for infant formula or mother's milk. And if they don’t, every box of soymilk says "this is not infant formula" on it in some form.

    Nina’s unprofessional assessment that “You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants” Is simply incorrect. As a filmmaker and documentarian who has worked on a documentary about vegan parenting, I have seen the healthy, robust vegan children first-hand.

    Many doctors, dieticians and nutritionists disagree with Nina, including the American Dietetic Association. According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), "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."

    The key phrase is “well-planned” and every parent should have a “well-planned” diet for their child, as should adolescents and adults.

    Plenty of cases of severe child abuse and nutritional neglect occur in non-vegan households, and likewise there are plenty of healthy, vegan children. In this case, the media and authorities are just looking for something to lay the blame on, and since Veganism is not mainstream, and has many health-myths attached to it, it is an easy target.

    Nina’s complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Veganism is evident in her subscription to typical and antiquated myths about protein, calcium, vitamins A, D and B12, claiming that vegans are basically lucky to be surviving. There is a reason that nutritionists “used to speak of proteins as “first class” (from meat, fish, eggs and milk) and “second class” (from plants)” that has nothing to do with hurting vegetarians’ feelings. It is simply incorrect and outdated.

    Americans are protein obsessed, according to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a board-certified family physician specializing in disease reversal and prevention. In his book “Disease Proof your Child”, he says the mainstream media and advertisers who profit from the meat and dairy industries perpetuate the fallacy about our need for excessive amounts of protein.

    According to Dr. Fuhrman, “Humans, like other primates, are designed to consume a diet predominating in natural plant foods with their symphony of essential phytochemicals. Fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, raw nuts and seeds should form the foundation of normal nutrition.” He explains that there is protein in almost everything edible. Look at the horse, the giraffe, the hippo, the Grey-Back Gorilla with nine-inch fangs – all vegetarians. How do they get so huge and strong? Certainly not by eating a steak or fish-filet!

    According to Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., “It is very easy for a vegan diet to meet the recommendations for protein, as long as calorie intake is adequate. Strict protein combining is not necessary; it is more important to eat a varied diet throughout the day.”

    The myth that fish are the only source of ‘complete’ amino acids is also totally false, according to Dr. Mangels.

    Just because you avoid animal products, however, does not automatically mean you’re healthy. If you include seaweed, nutritional yeast (tastes like cheese!), fortified soymilk, green leafy veggies (kale, collards, spinach) and other fresh fruits and veggies as well as healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, nuts and seeds in your diet, you have nothing to worry about.

    I addition to being healthy, veganism can be the greenest lifestyle for those concerned with their ecological or carbon footprint. In a groundbreaking 2006 report, the United Nations (U.N.) said that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Senior U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization official Henning Steinfeld reported that the meat industry is “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.”

    Veganism can be one of the healthiest diets. Vegetarian and vegan athletes are everywhere. From Hank Aaron (pro baseball player), to Steve Berra (pro skateboarder), to Andreas Cahling (champion bodybuilder), to Debbie Lawrence (5k record holder), to Martina Navratilova (champion tennis player), to Robert Parnish (pro basketball player), these athletes show that the stereotype of vegetarians and vegans being weak and frail is total nonsense.

    Nina Planck is just a hack trying to protect her future profits and sell books. There is no reason to believe her opinions or food preferences over anyone else’s, unless of course they are doctors, nutritionists, and dieticians or the American Dietetic Association.

    [thanks for the info, though next time, maybe just put a link to your vegan blog. Veganism absolutely did play a role in the Shakur case, hate to tell you, and it's a blinding example of parents who, in fact, do NOT know enough not to feed their newborn soymilk.

    The heated rhetoric about frankenfoods and industrial meat conspiracies is what scares dimwitted people like Shakur's parents out of their meateating habits, but it's obviously not enough to slap them awake to the effort and planning that it takes to live a healthy vegan lifestyle, which involves more, obviously, than just cutting out meat and dairy. Even now, the dad in that case is wasting away, not eating anything; he's clearly got emotional and psychological issues that have nothing to do with veganism, and if veganism was more widely understood, more easily supported, and the mainstream was more accommodating to it, such clueless people might be saved from themselves, and their kids, too.

    As for Planck, I would hope that no one around here makes major life decisions based solely on the sketchy science of an op-ed column; she's obviously got baggage, and her whole "recovering vegan" schtick should be enough of a flag for anyone without a severe DHA deficiency. That said, the more effective reaction to her editorial is facts and citations, not strident, borderline-paranoid-sounding claims of milk conspiracies. The vast majority of people aren't conspiring to do anything; they're just trying to get along as best they can. Believe me, I feel like a dork saying it to a vegan documentarian, but the carrot is better than the stick.

    Also, who the hell cares that Hank Aaron is vegan? Barry Bonds is a freakin' junkie and Chris Martin drives a Phil & Ted's; but why should that be any more credible than Planck's plea for BBQ? -ed.]

    One might as well ask why all the crazy parents are gun owners who let their kids play with guns. There are all kinds of neglectful parents--vegan, carnivore, crazy, and sane.

    I think that many people don't anticipate how hard it will be to be a vegan--and, although I'm a vegetarian, I honestly have no idea, being too lazy to find out. Besides, I like my ice cream. But eating lower on the food chain is always harder. That's why animals at the top, like lions or people, always pick food closer to the top of the food chain, like gazelles and Big Macs--it's easier, which allows them to spend more time on other things, like cat naps and blogging.

    In the U.S., where food is always ready to eat and easy to get, if you have the money, I think it's hard to shift gears to being a healthy vegan. Sure, you could become a vegan by switching from lattes to espressos and only eating fava beans and Doritos all day--except not really, since I think most Doritos include gelatin, so let's say fava beans and seaweed--but you wouldn't be a healthy vegan.

    But that's not to say it's not possible--for people who are smarter than I am and who work harder than I do. Jennifershmoo over at Vegan Lunch Box (, and makes it look easy, damn her. I believe, however, that providing a healthy vegan diet is more work than most parents who were raised in the U.S. are willing to do to feed their children. This means that they end up raising kids who are vegans, sure, but not healthy ones.

    ok. lets not get into some black and white framework where it is either fast food nation or vegan. all this 'humans are designed' bla bla bla is just so much ideology [ha! haven't used that word in a few decades] i think we can all agree that being vegan is a cultural choice whose health benefits are relative to numerous individual factors, its clearly not for everyone, and doesn't seem to be so good for the little ones. the food issue that appears to more directly related to health (as well as, in my opinion much more importantly, to numerous environmental/ecological benefits) is eating locally grown and raised food. thats just about difficult enough for me.

    [A good point; it seems like there's a default setting among most parents we know to avoid high-sugar food, processed food, fast food, etc., and to focus on organic or perceived healthy (sic) food for their kids. And yet there are tens of millions of people driving through and loading their kids up on Happy Meals and Doritos and Lucky Charms. It's a spectrum of behavior and benefits/damages, and I think if you ask most parents, they'll say they think they're doing a good job feeding their kids. Of course, Shakur's dad still thinks that, so go figure. Not everyone sees things as clearly as the true believer. -ed.]

    watch the short on vegan parenting

    You're right...there is no conspiracy. It's called lobbyists and advertisers. The meat and dairy lobby happens to be one of the most poweful and everyone on capital hill knows this.

    [dude, I'm glad they're so happy and doing so well, but how am I supposed to weigh a vegan restaurant owner's POV any differently than a woman who owns a farmer's market where they sell milk? Or one Vegan oncologist with a book vs. a local foodist with a book? Or a hapy vegan ballerina against my own ballerina, who had edamame, tuna roll, and Newman's Ginger-O's for dinner? -ed.]

    The pro-vegan screed above says that Nina owns London Farmers markets, that's not true, she founded the company that runs them, a totally different thing. Like all farmers markets, farmers, and the community, "own" and "profit" from them. Furthermore, the American Dietetic Association is the same organization that was forced to do an about face on margarine, nuts, alcohol, and all sorts of things: I'd trust them as far as they'd guarantee to compensate me if their advice didn't pan out. Finally, as to the various people who have said on this page that Nina's points aren't backed up, they are, you just have to read her book -- "Real Food, What to Eat and Why".

    I'm not Nina, just a fan of the book, and a parent who was persuaded by her writing to abandon canola oil and lowfat milk, avoid powdered milk in yogurt and such, and to eat more whole, traditional foods raised on grass instead of processed crap.

    I live in a liberal enclave, and I can't tell you how many vegetarian-leaning families I know who think a "healthy" meal is Bearitos corn chips alongside a textured-vegetable-protein Sloppy Joe made with Annie's barbecue sauce, and some fancy organic juice -- that's not a healthy meal, that's just sugar, vegetable oil, and flour.

    My advice would be to actually shell out $14.95 for the paperback and read it before you feed your precious babies soy milk, veggie burgers, veggie chicken nuggets, and all the other faux healthy products that come from the American soy-industrial-economy. For instance, as has been covered in DaddyTypes before, but still isn't widely known, soy-formula is all but banned in the UK (it's recommended as the last resort, only for babies who are allergic to both milk and rice milk) and yet there are lots of well off American parents who feed soy milk to their children because they have a sense that its healthier than cow's milk, when its resolutely not.

    I don't agree with all of Nina's points -- like, she pays attention to some human origin people who seem a little nuts -- but I think her basic premise, that traditional foods are healthier than a super-processed contemporary diet, and that grass-pastured milk, meat, and eggs are demonstrably healthier than their industrial-raised equivalents, is incredibly important.


    I haven't read the book, and I'm not a militant either way. I'm not, nor have I ever been, vegan. My wife decided she really liked artisan cheese and soft boiled eggs, so she isn't anymore either. I don't think anyone disagrees that locally sourced whole foods are superior to processed, industrially farmed anything. Locally grown food is something I feel very strongly about- it makes me feel a little sick to see Chinese grown garlic in Whole Foods. (Somewhat ironic given what I do, but that's another thing.)

    The point I initially objected to was the assertion that a vegan diet per se was unviable and unhealthy for pregnant mothers and children. It's not, if you do it right. We probably agree that it's a lot easier to do it wrong than right, but that is clearly the case with non-vegan diets as well. You only have to look at the rates of childhood obesity and poor health to see that almost nobody in this country knows how to eat properly anymore, whether they choose to eat meat, eggs, and dairy or not.

    The idea that vegans exclusively feed their kids soyburgers and juice is about as logically sound as saying that carnivores feed their kids nothing but Happy Meals and Tatertots. If you ran the numbers over the general population, I'd wager that the latter statement has more truth than the former.

    [thanks, that vegan per se point is worth repeating -ed.]

    'Dude', you're missing the point...
    Nina's claim is that is it not possible to have healthy, happy, vegan children. I am not saying that your ballerina has to be a vegan in order to be healthy and happy - but what I am saying is that Nina's claims about veganism are totally false, and you can have a healthy vegan family.

    I am sure we can all agree that organic, local, and natural foods are best in general, regardless of what they are.

    And as for the mention of vegan athletes earlier, what I am saying is that you CAN be vegan and have a strong body that performs well. You don't have to be, though.

    The reason to take Nina's opinions less seriously than those of doctors and nutrition experts is exactly because they are doctors and nutrition experts and she is not.

    Here is the letter to the editor sent yesterday to the New York Times by Dr. John McDougall in response to Nina Planck's article. I hope it is published, but in case not, you can read it here.

    Nina Planck's article condemning vegan diet contains serious errors concerning the adequacy of plant foods. Plants do contain all the essential amino acids in adequate quantities to meet human needs, and even those of children (Millward). Vitamin D is not found in milk or meat, unless it is added during manufacturing. Sunlight is the proper source of this vitamin. Plants manufacture beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. The original source of all minerals (including calcium and zinc) is the ground. Plants are abundant in minerals; and they act as the conduit of minerals to animals. The scientific truth is protein, essential amino acid, mineral, and vitamin (except for B12 which is synthesized by bacteria, not animals) deficiencies are never caused by a diet based on whole plant foods when calorie needs are met. Ms. Planck's distortion of nutritional science is a serious matter that needs to be fixed.

    Babies at 6 weeks of age require human breast milk and any other diet means malnutrition. Imagine if the exact opposite approach killed an infant with a formula made of pulverized beef and cow's milk, would this have received similar worldwide press? I believe the case would have been properly considered child neglect (intentional or not) and have gone unnoticed except for those intimately involved. "People love to hear good news about their bad habits" so the tragedy of the death of an infant caused by misguided parents who fed their infant apple juice and soy milk for the first 6 weeks of life has been used to justify eating meat and drinking cow's milk.

    Reference: Millward DJ. The nutritional value of plant-based diets in relation to human amino acid and protein requirements. Proc Nutr Soc. 1999 May;58(2):249-60.

    Come on you guys, this is not an issue of diet. This is an issue of parents, for whatever reason, not seeing that their child was dying, or seeing it and not doing anything about it. I can't imagine watching that happen and being so ideologically rigid that I wouldn't do something about it. But we only get to see through our own eyes, don't we.

    I'm a Bearito, TVP-sloppy-joe eating organic apple juice drinkin' vegetarian. I love eggs dairy too much to be a vegan - DAMN that dairy lobby! I'd probably be thinner and healthier if I was a vegan (cause there's no meat in ice cream and chocolate).

    My girls are vegetarians, and are very healthy> If we lived a vegan life, they'd be vegans too, I expect, but I hope I'd notice if they weren't thriving.

    And that is the real issue here. We are talking about abuse and neglect. Non-vegans starve their kids too. Lets look at the actually important number in this piece: "at least the third such conviction in the last four years." Ok, lets assume there are a few more cases out there, but how many vegan families are there? Is that a crisis?

    There have been at least three shaken baby deaths/trials in Maine and New Hampshire in the last four or five months. I don't think that anyone involved in those tragedies was vegan. Lets keep things in perspective.

    Yeah, I don't think the "vegan" thing was the main issue in this case; it was the parents' neglect. They ignored a warning label on soy milk that said not to use it for infants. The bed sore on the butt could be proven to be a sore and not a rash.

    The poor kid. Another wasted innocent life born to idiotic, cruel parents.

    I agree with the poster above that I don't care at all what happens to those two murderers.

    "Look at the horse, the giraffe, the hippo,"

    Human beings are not ruminants.

    It is dangerous, generally speaking, to make assumptions about human nutritional needs based on what other mammals eat. Some animals can make their own Vitamin C; we can't. Some have multiple stomachs for digesting grass and leaves; we don't.

    Like many readers reacting to this newsbit, I'm surprised by the ethnocentrism inherent in the uproar. In India the Jains, many of whom practice veganism and eschew root vegetables, occupy the upper echelons of government. It's simply not true that veganism is bad for growing children, or an entire portion of this community would've wiped itself out long ago. According to the 2001 Indian census, which shows the Jains to be one of the most successful groups in terms of wealth and power, it seems that these vegans are intelligent and thriving.

    Pooey on the Western ethnocentrism, mean-spirited propoganda and simply bad journalism.

    [and yeah, wealth and political power! -ed.]

    Carny Asada, I couldn't agree more, which is why the foundation for Nina's argument is flawed.

    Confusion about our protein needs came from studies of the nutritional needs of animals. Mendel and Osborne in 1913 reported rats grew better on animal, than on vegetable, sources of protein. A direct consequence of their studies resulted in meat, eggs, and dairy foods being classified as superior, or "Class A" protein sources and vegetable proteins designated as inferior, or "Class B" proteins. Seems no one considered that rats are not people. One obvious difference in their nutritional needs is rat milk is 11 times more concentrated in protein than is human breast milk. The extra protein supports this animal's rapid growth to adult size in 5 months; while humans take 17 years to fully mature. The world's authority on human protein needs, Prof. Joseph Millward, wrote the following: "Contrary to general opinion, the distinction between dietary protein sources in terms of the nutritional superiority of animal over plant proteins is much more difficult to demonstrate and less relevant in human nutrition."

    So if we're going to compare why we don't have the stomachs for grass, shouldn't we do the same for flesh to be balanced? No, we're not ruminants, but neither do we have short intestinal tracts, like most carnivourous animals to quickly expel cholesterol, festering flesh toxins, and excess fats(Heart Disease, anyone?). Nor are we equipped with weapons (claws, razor-like teeth) to take down animals and tear into their raw flesh (we use tools), nor can we, in most cases, consume most flesh raw without getting ill, unlike our omnivorous friends in the animal kingdom.

    I just wanted to clarify that Jains are not vegans. Even the most strict Jains consume liberal amounts of dairy products, even if they eschew root vegetables (more to do with eating "Satvic" and not "Tamasic" foods). Jains believe in harvesting their food and not killing the entire organism, as one would if an entire plant is uprooted (also killing other insects living in the soil in the process).

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