Yet another vegan couple was jailed last week after their baby nearly died from malnourishment. Though very tragic, this isn’t all that surprising given the alarming number of babies who are inadvertently killed and/or nearly starved to death by their well-meaning vegan parents. (See: Why I’m not a Vegan)
A Swedish court sentenced the couple to three months of jail and a $6000 fine after their 18-month old daughter was found nearly starved to death. The child was brought into the ER back in February of this year in “serious condition and a non-responsive state.” They noted that she was “hours from dying,” and her condition had been caused by “prolonged starvation.” (source)
Vegans should be distinguished from vegetarians. Vegetarians may choose not to eat meat, but will often allow themselves to eat things animals produce — like eggs, milk, and honey. If they eat a well-balanced diet, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a lacto-ovo vegetarian to be healthy and not suffer from any nutritional deficiencies. Vegans, however, eschew all animal products. They will not eat eggs or dairy and often choose not to eat honey, going so far as to refuse to wear wool or leather.
The convicted vegan parents fed their daughter a restrictive diet that only consisted of breastmilk, brown rice, and potatoes. Sadly, this is unlikely to provide many key nutrients that babies need for normal growth and development, especially if the mother was not eating a well-planned vegan diet to produce her optimal breastmilk. (Quite a few studies show that women with major nutrient deficiencies do not always produce optimal breastmilk.) Doctors at the Swedish hospital said the girl was “worse than anything we have seen at the hospital before” and noted that the 18-month old weighed what you’d expect a 6-month old to weigh. (source)
Belgian Doctors Say It’s Unethical to Feed Children A Vegan Diet
Recently, the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium published a legal opinion that said that raising children on a vegan diet requires the kind of medical supervision that parents are not qualified to provide. “We must explain to the parents before compelling them,” said Professor Georges Casimir, one of the Belgian doctors behind the report, “but we can no longer tolerate this endangerment.”
“This restrictive regime [a vegan diet] requires ongoing monitoring of children to avoid deficiencies and often irreversible growth delays. It is unsuitable for unborn children, children, teenagers and pregnant and lactating women…. It is not medically recommended and even forbidden to subject a child, especially during periods of rapid growth, to a potentially destabilising diet, requiring frequent supplementation and control…. This concept of nutrition is similar to a form of treatment that it is not ethical to impose on children.”(source)
So, what are vegan diets missing?
There are all sorts of nutrients that children and babies need which are commonly found in animal products like eggs, meat, organ meats, fish, or dairy (and rarely found elsewhere). Among them are:
- Vitamin A — This fat-soluble vitamin is essential for fetal development and proper growth in children. Think of it like an orchestra conductor that tells all the cells in your body where to go and how to develop into the right kinds of tissues and organs. It can only be found in animal foods like liver, milk, and eggs, although its precursors (like beta-carotene) can be found in plant foods. Many people can efficiently convert beta-carotene into Vitamin A, but developing infants, children, the elderly, and those with thyroid disorders usually can not. Shockingly, this adds up to more than half of the population! These people need to get Vitamin A from eating animals and animal products or need to eat excessive amounts of beta-carotene in their diet to make up for their inefficient conversion of beta-carotene into Vitamin A (source). There are no known vegan supplements of true Vitamin A.
- Vitamin B12 — Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. A vegan is unlikely to get enough of this vitamin in their diet, and will either need to eat foods fortified with Vitamin B12 or supplement with B12. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include: feeling tired or weak, having pale or jaundiced skin, balance issues, the feeling of pins and needles, and even mouth ulcers. (source)
- Iron — While it’s possible to get plenty of iron from a plant-based diet, the iron found in plant foods (non-heme iron) is not as easily absorbed by the body, particularly for the very young and the very old. The best source of heme iron is, of course, red meat from grass-fed cows. Those avoiding eating meat should supplement with a gentle iron supplement that is still whole food based. Symptoms of iron deficiency include: extreme fatigue, brittle nails, weakness, pale skin, fast heart beats, lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, inflammation of the tongue, and poor appetite (particularly in babies and children with iron deficiency anemia). (source)
- DHA and ELA Fatty Acids — While our bodies can convert ALA from plants into DHA and ELA to meet our needs, they don’t do it very efficiently (and this conversion is practically non-existent for young children and the elderly). You can get DHA from eggs and milk and fish, but a vegan would likely need to supplement with a DHA from algae. Symptoms of a DHA deficiency include: attention and concentration problems, soft or brittle nails, dry skin, and fatigue. It plays a major role in brain development for growing children and babies even before they’re born. (source)
- Vitamin K2 — This vitamin is only present in egg yolks, organ meats, dairy products, and some fermented foods. It is essential for telling your body where to put calcium (you want it to go to your bones, for example, rather than your arteries!). The richest food sources of it are grass-fed liver, egg yolks from hens raised on pasture, gouda cheese and natto (a kind of fermented soybean). Since vegans won’t eat the liver, the gouda or the egg yolks, their choices are to eat natto regularly or supplement. Speaking of eating natto, my friend Kirsten Shockey wrote a book that’s coming out this month (GO BUY IT!!!!!) that’s chock full of recipes to help you incorporate natto into your diet. (She also said it helped IMMENSELY with her perimenopausal symptoms, but I guess that’s probably for another post?) But wait! Don’t the bacteria in our guts convert K1 to K2 for us? Yes, a little. But studies have shown that it’s definitely not enough and can quickly result in a K2 deficiency. Symtpoms of a K2 deficiency include osteoporosis, fragile bones susceptible to more breakage, and hardening of the arteries.
Supplementing with these nutrients is always a good idea.
Vegan or not, it turns out that the standard American diet leaves most of us mildly deficient in these vitamins anyway.
If you want the best, cleanest, multi-vitamin source for these essential vitamins, I highly recommend checking out Ritual. Their multi-vitamins smell nice (I have never felt nauseous taking them!!!!), look pretty, and are meticulously sourced so that there’s no added filler or gross residues from processing. They’re gluten free, allergen free, GMO-free, and all-natural. And they’re even vegan for those of you who care about that.
But what about true Vitamin A, which is only available from animals? If you aren’t getting enough Vitamin A in your diet, I highly recommend taking Dropi raw, Icelandic, extra virgin cod liver oil (available in both liquid and capsules). It’s sustainably caught, gluten-free and GMO-free, and has no artificial ingredients or synthetic vitamins added to it.
Why are Belgian Doctors Speaking Out?
Unfortunately, Belgium recently saw an uptick in children suffering from vegan-diet related health complications and even dying from what essentially amounted to starvation. This led the government to commission a report, which the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium provided.
Dr. Casimir summarized his warnings against a vegan diet for children like so:
“When we are children, the body manufactures brain cells. This implies higher requirements for protein and essential fatty acids. The body does not produce them, it must be brought in via animal proteins…. We are talking here about stunted growth and psychomotor delays, undernutrition, significant anemia. Some developments must be done at a specific time in life and if they are not done, it is irreversible.”(source)
While I definitely struggle with the appropriate place for government to take action against parents (generally I favor a parent’s rights to make these kinds of decisions), I find that common sense dictates I agree with Professor Casimir.
There is not one example of an indigenous society on our planet that eats a fully vegan diet. If ancestral eating according to pre-Industrial, traditional food preparation methods is to be our guiding principle, then I can’t ignore the fact that all indigenous cultures eat at least some animal products. See Why I’m Not A Vegan for more on why that probably is.