A couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel at Polyface Farm with some colleagues. It was part of the Food Freedom Fundraisers, a benefit for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. We were discussing our rights to eat the foods that we feel best nourish our family. For the most part, I believe in this. I do think we have a right to make our own decisions when it comes to our nutrition, and I also think that the USDA, a department of the government largely saddled with promoting commodity agriculture, should not also be involved in telling us what is healthy to eat. Our dietary guidelines are quite skewed in favor of large amounts of grains, and the “everything in moderation” motto touted by dietitians is not helping us get healthier.
During the panel, I brought up the recent Italian proposal to jail parents, for up to a year, who impose a vegan diet on their children, claiming a vegan diet is “devoid of essential elements for [children’s] healthy and balanced growth”. I was really curious where the other panelists, many of them liberaterian, sat on this matter.
One panelist said that feeding kids a vegan diet is the same as a junk-filled standard American diet, and said that it’s a slippery slope once the government gets involved in deciding what is legal and not legal to eat. Another person agreed. I get where they’re coming from. I wrote about the sugar tax here, and believe that taxing “bad foods” is certainly a slippery slope. What’s to stop the government from telling us that eating butter should be criminalized? Or meat? Illegal bacon? I envisioned a huge black market trade of bacon – underground tunnels – rich farmers…
A third suggested that it is not the role of the government to intervene but instead the responsibility of the community. He cited a situation where a member of his church had seemly undernourished children. He and other members of the church had a sort of intervention with the mother, sitting her down and explaining how she could be harming her children with the diet she was feeding them.
Sitting next to me was Dr. Drew Ramsey, the only MD on the panel, who disagreed that a vegan diet and “junk food” diet were equal. In a “junk food” diet, he explained, someone could be “overweight and probably very tired, but generally they will be able to make it through school and be ok.” He said this was not the case in a child on a vegan diet, explaining that B12 deficiency can cause irreversible brain damage. He further said that children have no choice in what their parents feed them, and for a parent to feed a child a vegan diet is “negligent.” As a dietitian, I happen to agree.
Before the comments come rushing in, let me clarify things by saying that Drew and I do no endorse a junk food diet at all, but we are saying that there is a very big difference between permanent brain damage to a child as a result from a vitamin deficiency and being unhealthy and obese from a standard American diet, neither of which situations are optimal.
Ramsey was recently interviewed for an article in the fall issue of Naturally, Danny Seo, “Is Meat Brain Food?” which hit newsstands this week. In the article, Ramsey is quoted:
“THERE ARE A LOT OF WAYS TO FIGHT OBESITY, DIABETES AND HEART DISEASE WITH FOOD— AND VEGANISM ISN’T ONE OF THEM. A VEGAN DIET WITHOUT A B12 SUPPLEMENT LEADS TO HEART DISEASE, BRAIN ATROPHY AND ANEMIA. I DON’T SAY THAT TO BE PROVOCATIVE, I SAY THAT BECAUSE THIS IS AN IMPORTANT PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE AND TO SAY OTHERWISE IS A MISREPRESENTATION OF VEGANISM.” – Drew Ramsey, MD
The potential damages of a vegan diet are well documented. Low B12 is a cause of failure to thrive, developmental delay, and neurological issues in children. Vitamin B12 plays a major role in human metabolism and is required in the Krebs cycle to produce energy. B12 is also required to form methionine. Low B12 elevates homocysteine (hHcy), a major independent biomarker to chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease.
In this systematic review and meta analysis of plasma total tHcy status of vegetarians and vegans compared to omnivores showed “an inverse relationship exists between plasma tHcy and serum vitamin B₁₂, from which it can be concluded that the usual dietary source of vitamin B₁₂ is animal products and those who choose to omit or restrict these products are destined to become vitamin B₁₂ deficient. At present, the available supplement, which is usually used for fortification of food, is the unreliable cyanocobalamin.”
In this study of 40 breast-fed babies to mothers with low B12, the researchers found that the babies suffered from failure to thrive, hypotonia, developmental delay, and 23% had microcephaly. More than half were anemic. The neurological damage from low B12 can be permanent. There have been many recent cases of hospitalized children due to B12 deficiency and other related effects from vegan diets. B12 supplementation can dramatically improve their symptoms, however, as in this case, the children may never reach their full potential, and sometimes it can lead to death.
Chris Kresser warns about the dangers of excluding meat in this post. He cites several studies about the dangers of a vegan diet, including this one, which shows lower cognitive abilities in children who were raised on a vegan diet, even after they have reincorporated meat. Chris also talks about the critical differences between plant and meat sources of nutrients. In the case of calcium, zinc, iron, EPA, DHA, and vitamins A and D, he explains how animal sources are superior to the plant sources. Plant-based supplements of B12 and DHA are not equal to the animal forms.
With 5% of the American population considering themselves vegetarian, and 2% saying they are vegan, more public awareness needs to be brought to the surface about how dangerous these diet can be, especially for children. There’s a ton of misinformation out there, and people are very vulnerable to messages like the one below:
The facts shown are incorrect. 100 calories of beef is actually 13g of protein, and 100 calories of broccoli is only 7 grams. What is not clear here, is that 100 calories of broccoli is TWO CUPS, vs only about 2 ounces of beef in 100 calories. Come on folks! Broccoli is not as easily digested as meat (can you imagine how you might feel after eating that much broccoli?) and the nutrients in broccoli can’t even begin to compare to the nutrients in beef. Plus, meat is a complete protein with no limiting amino acids. The protein in meat is highly digestible, around 94% compared with the digestibility of 78% in beans and 86% in whole wheat. Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score is a method of evaluating the protein quality, with a maximum possible score of 1.0. Animal meats like beef have a score of approximately 0.9, compared with values of 0.5-0.7 for most plant foods.
To me, the “moral argument” is really at the heart of why so many people turn to a vegan diet. They don’t want lives to die in order to live. I get that, and dive into it more in this post.
But what is at the heart of all of this to me is that humans are completely removed from natural cycles.
When I was at Polyface farm, I asked Joel Salatin what he says to vegans who come to the farm, wondering why we “need” to kill animals. His response was:
“Everything in life eats and is eaten. If you don’t believe me, go lie down naked in a flower bed for three days and see what happens. Life can’t be possible without death. Look at a compost pile, which is full of life. This is what they’re trying to get away from. The opposite of death is not life. Both must happen. This is what makes life so precious. Humans can kill in a sacred, humane way. No other animal can do this.” – Joel Salatin
Again, there are tons of films and images on the internet reinforcing the horrors of industrial animal production. However, saying you don’t want to eat meat because you don’t believe in factory farming is like me saying I won’t eat vegetables because I don’t believe in GMOs. There are alternative, sustainable models. I wrote about how meat can actually benefit the environment here.
Additionally, there are lots of compelling stories of people who claim their lives have never been better on a vegan diet. When people go vegan and give up meat, they are usually also giving up other foods like sugar and refined carbohydrates. They feel great for a while. Their weight goes down, and they have more energy. This would happen without giving up meat. What ends up happening though, is that their bodies usually turn to their own muscle tissue for much-needed protein. They experience dry skin, tiredness, depression, loss of sex drive, poor sleep, and constant hunger. For every n=1 blog touting vegan as the cure-all, simply type in vegan + diet + failure into google and see what comes up. You’ll find numerous blog posts by people who saw severe health declines on the vegan diet.
This is because humans are omnivores; a fact of nature.
For ex-vegans concerned about your nutritional status, I recommend this book, a methyl B12 supplement, some cod liver oil, a test for micronutrients to learn the status of other common deficiencies like zinc, and a good grass-fed steak.
What are your thoughts on jail time for parents undernourishing their children? Is it the same as a junk food diet? Should the government stay out of our nutrition completely? What should be done when children are nutritionally neglected? Whose job is it to step in? Is it the community or church? What if there is no community for the child? Is it anyone’s job? Should irreversible brain damage in a child be considered neglect or abuse? Is there enough public information out there about the dangers of a vegan diet? What are your thoughts?