A Choice With Definite Risks

Nina Planck

Nina Planck is the author of the Real Food series and The Farmer's Market Cookbook.

April 17, 2012

They say everything can be replaced.
—Bob Dylan

The modern American is fierce about his or her right to choose a particular “lifestyle.”

So it is with vegan diets for children. In 2007, when I argued in The New York Times that a diet consisting exclusively of plants was inadequate for babies and children, the response was dramatic, and at times, even vicious.

I believe that babies and children require a better diet. The American Dietetic Association asserts that a “well-planned” vegan diet — by which the experts mean one with many synthetic supplements — can be adequate for babies; I disagree.

The breast milk of vegan mothers is dramatically lower in a critical brain fat, DHA, than the milk of an omnivorous mother.

Nature created humans as omnivores. We have the physical equipment for omnivory, from teeth to guts. 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.

The quantity, quality and bio-availability of other nutrients, such as calcium and protein, are superior when consumed from animal rather than plant sources. It’s quite possible to thrive on a diet including high-quality dairy and eggs — many populations do — but a diet of plants alone is fit only for herbivores.

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. Vegans, vegetarians and people with poor thyroid function are often deficient in carnitine and its precursors.

The most risky period for vegan children is weaning. Growing babies who are leaving the breast need complete protein, omega-3 fats, iron, calcium and zinc. Compared with meat, fish, eggs and dairy, plants are inferior sources of every one.

Soy protein is not good for a baby’s first food for the same reason that soy formula is not good for newborns. It’s a poor source of calcium, iron and zinc — and much too high in estrogen. It also lacks adequate methionine, which babies and children need to grow properly. Lastly, soy damages the thyroid, which compromises immunity and stunts growth.

Vegans may believe it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources like seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and brewer’s yeast. Alas, these foods contain mostly B12 analogs, which, according to the health writer Chris Kresser, “block intake of and increase the need for true B12,” a vital nutrient for mental health.

Mr. Kresser argues that this is one reason studies consistently show that up to 50 percent of long-term vegetarians and 80 perent of vegans are deficient in B12. “The effects of B12 deficiency on kids are especially alarming,” he writes. “Studies have shown that kids raised until age 6 on a vegan diet are still B12 deficient even years after they start eating at least some animal products.” In one study, the researchers found “a significant association” between low B12 levels and “fluid intelligence, spatial ability and short-term memory.” The formerly vegan kids scored lower than omnivorous kids every time.

The greatest error of modern industrial life, which celebrates the lab and technology, is our love affair with the facsimile. It is time to face the music. Some things cannot be replaced. Real food is one.

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.

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Topics: Health, food

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