Friday, June 27, 2014

Behind the Vegan Scare

A healthy vegan baby boy.
Yes, they do exist. 
Maybe you've heard about the Florida mother, Sarah Anne Markham, who was arrested earlier this week for child neglect. Her baby was admitted to a hospital suffering from dehydration and she refused to allow the baby to be given medicine because she claimed "it contained ingredients that came from animals." (Source)

Headline version: The woman had been feeding her baby organic soy formula and the baby, at 12 days old, became dehydrated. Markham told the police she had chosen the formula in consultation with a vegan doctor, but she did not provide her/his name, and she was elusive under questioning. The police arrested Markham and her infant is now in protective custody.

It's a heartbreaking story, but already media outlets are likening it to a case of an Atlanta couple that starved their six-week-old child to death on a vegan diet of soy formula and apple juice. When the baby boy died, he weighed a shocking three and a half pounds. A similar case in France generated headlines when a vegan couple was arrested by French authorities, charged with "neglect and food deprivation" after their 11-month-old baby - who was given only breast milk and nothing else - died. (Source)

One can - and ought to - sympathize with these tiny and most helpless of victims. To die of malnutrition or starvation is a horrid way to perish (let's face it, there aren't any good ways to die, either). Neglectful parents have a great deal to answer for, and these infants undoubtedly suffered the unthinkable due to poor parenting.

Having said that, it is interesting to note how the press has used these worst-case scenarios, which happen to involve veganism, as cautionary tales to warn people against the vegan lifestyle. In Markham's case, the headlines proved quite sensational: "Is Veganism Child Abuse?" (, "Vegan Florida Mother Arrested and Accused of Neglecting Child" (WEAR ABC Channel 3), "Vegan Parent Denies Infant Medicine" (KSN-TV), "Vegan Mother Arrested for Child Neglect Over Beliefs" (eMaxHealth), "Mother charged with neglect after refusing to take her dehydrated newborn to a hospital over staunch VEGAN beliefs" (Daily Mail, UK - the all upper-case vegan was their emphasis, not mine).

It's possible to go on, but you get the picture. The cumulative effect of these stories is to throw a scare into any parents who are considering raising their babies and children on a vegan diet.

Full disclosure: I'm a vegan but my kids are not. I embraced veganism at age 41. That was five years ago, in 2009. By that time, my kids were into their teen years, and even though I sought to live by example and promoted the lifestyle, they were not prepared to embrace it like I was.

It's not unusual for people to embrace veganism later in life, and to allow their children to go on being omnivores. I've known other vegans who've taken this approach. There is nothing wrong with it.

I have also known - and admire - vegans who raise their children as vegans. Among the most attentive parents I've seen (many of whom are Facebook friends) insist on rearing their children as vegans. The ones I know make sure their children not only enjoy balanced diets, but delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinner, right down to the vegan bakery treats for dessert.

You won't hear about these diligent vegan parents in the latest media vegan scare. Plus, there is a glaring double standard at work here. While veganism is treated as the culprit in these very isolated cases of child neglect (only three that I have been able to pinpoint), one does not see deaths from tainted meat treated in the same hysterical fashion. Six years ago, there was a big listeria outbreak in Canada in which 22 people died and a number of others were hospitalized. Rather than warning about the dangers of meat consumption, which resulted in the tragic outbreak, press outlets instead assured a frightened public that eating meat was fine, that the "bad meat" (which in this case consisted of cold cuts from Maple Leaf Foods) had been removed from store shelves, and there was no need to panic.

In addition to the aforementioned double standard, it is important to note that the two heavily publicized infant deaths mentioned above were the result of starvation and malnutrition, not veganism. Vegans who eat healthy diets do not starve (that's coming from a husky vegan who's always dieting, always trying to watch his weight). Veganism may be touted by celebrities like J-Lo as the hot new way to lose weight. But believe me, once you get used to living the lifestyle, and your body has a chance to adjust to it, it's just as easy to gain weight as a vegan as it is being an omnivore.

So what's behind this media-generated vegan scare? It is all noise and no substance. If anything, it speaks to the ignorance of many of the journalists reporting on it. Veganism is healthy for human beings when it consists of a balanced diet. No diet - vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, carnivore - is going to make a difference if one is being starved to death.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I hadn't read much beyond the headlines but did so as a result of your useful collection of links. Actually this post could be a nice teaching tool aide for approaching information from a scientific or empirical basis. For instance, as you rightly point out, none of these stories are about veganism or vegetarianism...they are about parents behaving irresponsibly toward the dietary needs of their children.

    And the media is, as usual, going to snatch the most inflammatory and interest provoking thing they can to stir up interest in the story. Actually, I thought the Solon story was sort of ok until she decided to fall off the deep end and quote Nina Planck (who's a self-styled food "expert" making a living off of touting her books and stuff) and then she ended the article with a really arrogant and stupid statement which pretty much torpedoed whatever credibility she had: "Because no matter what, your kid has to be at the top of the food chain." Which implies that if junior is hungry grandma is at I said...she shows her ignorance and arrogance and silliness with that final statement.

    From what I could see, we are given no context, no genuine data from which to understand all this. From what I can see, it seems to me, you're at as much risk of harming your child's health with a standard american diet as you are with a vegan diet (the standard diet is probably more "dangerous"). But...what we need to know is this. Of all children fed a well planned vegan diet, how many develop or have health problems related to the diet. Of all children fed a well planned standard diet, how many develop or have health problems related to the diet?

    Only if we have those two factors can we even begin to make some sort of reasoned and evidence grounded thoughts about whether the impact on the health of children of those eating styles are different or the same. you well point out...if you're depriving someone of enough nutrition to thrive or live, it doesn't matter what sort of food you're keeping from...if you do this extremely enough it will harm or kill them.

    The main lesson to take away from this is to be very very suspicious of any information from the "media" and think about what you are being told.