This past weekend, the LA Times published an editorial suggesting pregnant women who adhere to a vegan diet and subsequently raise vegan children are irresponsible. The writer, Alexandra Le Tellier, was responding to the release of Vegan Is Love, a new children's book that explains and advocates a vegan diet. Le Tellier was clearly looking for evidence to support her own half-baked belief that veganism can't be good for kids. Shamefully, some of the sources she came up with were pathetic, and she cited the decent ones incompletely.
First, she quotes another LA Times article that explains a study by Swedish researchers which concluded that early humans' meat consumption helped them reproduce faster than they could have if they'd adhered to a strictly plant-based diet. What Le Tellier forgot to mention is that Elia Psouni, one of the Lund University researchers, was careful to note that the results of the study say nothing about what humans today should or should not eat.
Of course they don't! I don't think I need to explain to anyone how different our world and available nutritional choices -- plant and otherwise -- are from what would have been available to our cave-dwelling ancestors. Read on as I continue to rip this nutritionally and ethically ignorant editorial apart.
The study talks about how meat-eating sped development of our ancestors' infants. That may have been good at the time. But today our development at all stages of life is speeding up at alarming rates. Today, about 16 percent of American girls get their periods by the age of 7, and 30 percent by age 8. Among the primary reasons is increased animal protein consumption, childhood obesity, plastic residues and pesticide consumption. This early maturation also increases breast cancer risk. So, does Le Tellier think this is good news too?
Then, this great journalist goes on to include nutritional advice from the author of a cookbook:
"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," explains Nina Planck, author of "The Farmer's Market Cookbook," on the New York Times' Room For Debate. She continues: "For babies and children, whose nutritional needs are extraordinary, the risks are definite and scary. The breast milk of vegetarian and vegan mothers is dramatically lower in a critical brain fat, DHA, than the milk of an omnivorous mother and contains less usable vitamin B6. Carnitine, a vital amino acid found in meat and breast milk, is nicknamed 'vitamin Bb' because babies need so much of it." And she concludes: "You may choose to be a vegan. Your baby doesn't have that luxury. Let her grow up omnivorous and healthy. Then watch her exercise her own freedom of choice with justifiable pride."
All of this information is misleading. Reality is that Vitamin A occurs in the form of carotenoids in plant foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, butternut squash, turnip greens, bok choy, mustard greens, and romaine lettuce. It's converted into "fully formed" vitamin A in the human intestines and other tissues.
Vitamin D indeed doesn't occur in plant foods, but one of the best sources of it is simple sun exposure. Most people eating a standard western diet are deficient in it anyway, so supplements are a reasonable idea for everyone.
As an alternative to fatty, cholesterol-laden, hormonally toxic animal products, vitamin B12 can easily be obtained by eating small amounts of nutritional yeast, which contains quite a bit of protein and has a pleasant cheesy, nutty taste as an added bonus. You can also take a vegan supplement. It is important for vegans to do one or both of these things to avoid B12 deficiency.
As far as long-chain fatty acids go, the body can convert short-chain omega-3 fats (from walnuts, green vegetables, chia, flax and hemp seeds) into them. Or we can get the long-chain fatty acids from the same place the fish get them: from marine algae. Consuming quality-controlled marine algae as our source of long-chain fatty acids also assures that we're not being poisoned by the highly concentrated toxins in much of the available fish supply. Dr. Joel Fuhrman makes a supplement derived from fresh, uncontaminated, lab-grown microalgae for anyone who is concerned he or she may not be consuming enough DHA and EPA fats.
Carnitine does not have to be consumed directly. The human body makes its own in the liver and kidneys. People consuming a well-rounded plant-based diet will automatically be equipped with the building blocks needed to make this essential amino acid.
As far as I can see, the "definite and scary" "risks" of a vegan diet are mysterious and exemplified only by a few misguided individuals who are adopting the lifestyle without having done any reading on the subject. Of course simply subtracting nonvegan foods from a pitiful standard American diet is going to leave people who were already malnourished in an equally poor or poorer condition than the one they started in. But educating yourself and making the change to a colorful and well-rounded vegetable-rich plant-based diet has huge benefits in preventing and reversing disease, avoiding obesity, and increasing overall vitality, for mothers-in-progress and their eventual offspring.
As far as a book that explains veganism to kids, I think Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Center, said it best in an ABC News article:
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"As long as any nutrient shortfalls are addressed, a vegan diet is certainly apt to be better for most kids than than the typical American diet they have now."
He went on to say:
"Adults are too willing to turn a blind eye to the way our animal-based diets are achieved. The torture and maltreatment of animals are real, whether or not we acknowledge them. Adults can make the conscious choice not to look there, to help protect a lifetime of dietary preferences. Kids are more malleable and impressionable. Maybe childhood is the best time to create awareness and change behavior accordingly."