Surface Thinking: It’s not just for vegans anymore!

And so the irrational attacks on vegansim continue, this time in the New York Times, courtesy of
Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why. Consider:

When Crown Shakur died of starvation, he was 6 weeks old and weighed 3.5 pounds. His vegan parents, who fed him mainly soy milk and apple juice, were convicted in Atlanta recently of murder, involuntary manslaughter and cruelty.

This particular calamity — at least the third such conviction of vegan parents in four years — may be largely due to ignorance. But it should prompt frank discussion about nutrition.

As I wrote when this story first appeared earlier this month, was that story about veganism or ignorance? It wouldn’t have mattered if the parents fed their son cow’s milk and chicken broth, such a limited diet still would’ve been inappropriate and insufficient for anyone, much less a six-week-old child. That’s where the story ends. Or should end, if there isn’t an agenda to push. So we get this:

I was once a vegan. But well before I became pregnant, I concluded that a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible. You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.

And what support does Ms. Planck offer?

Indigenous cuisines offer clues about what humans, naturally omnivorous, need to survive, reproduce and grow: traditional vegetarian diets, as in India, invariably include dairy and eggs for complete protein, essential fats and vitamins. There are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long run.

I’m being simple because I don’t realize that people have always done it. That means it’s good. Or I can reiterate something I wrote earlier today and apply it to the last sentence: it sounds correct so it must be correct. It’s a little too simple to say a vegan diet isn’t adequate, so that’s why no vegan societies exist. For example, what about this?

… Cornell University study finds that it is primarily people whose ancestors came from places where dairy herds could be raised safely and economically, such as in Europe, who have developed the ability to digest milk.

Do people from areas where that evolutionary development didn’t occur still need milk?

Ms. Planck provides more incomplete analysis throughout. She often hits upon the correct problem – improper nutrition – while trying to maintain a cohesive narrative against vegansim, even though veganism can provide proper nutrition. When she states that vegans tend to use soy too much in feeding their children because it reduces protein absorption, she blames veganism rather than poor nutritional sources of protein. I could use the same logic she does and end with is fact: cow’s milk can leech calcium and minerals from bones, which is quite different than the desired, advertised result. But I won’t, because relying on such simplicity leads to conclusions like this:

An adult who was well-nourished in utero and in infancy may choose to get by on a vegan diet, but babies are built from protein, calcium, cholesterol and fish oil. Children fed only plants will not get the precious things they need to live and grow.

Cholesterol is a fascinating subject. Vegans never develop high cholesterol because they don’t consume cholesterol in their diet. That would be nice if it were true. It’s not. But it’s equally untrue that vegans have no source of cholesterol. As long as they have a functioning liver and decent nutrition, cholesterol isn’t a problem.

The fish oil nonsense is the winner, though. Pretending that it’s fish oil and not the nutrients in fish oil demonstrates how Ms. Planck whiffed in her argument. Sufficient nutritional intake is the issue. It always has been and always will be, regardless of whether or not we’re discussing veganism. If critics of veganism can demonstrate that proper nutrition isn’t possible, they should do so. Trotting out the stories of a few children who died from ignorant parenting isn’t proof.

Original link via Glenn Reynolds, where he offers this damning indictment against veganism:

I had a girlfriend who was on a vegan diet. She came down with Kwashiorkor. Luckily, the folks at Cornell Student Health diagnosed it quickly, even though it’s a protein-deficiency disease normally found in starving third-world children, because they had seen it so often among women on vegan diets.

Everyone always knows someone. So, let’s see, college-aged adults, surely the most rational, informed people around, eat a diet with insufficient protein, despite all the sources of protein found in nature, and veganism is to blame. Gotcha. Potato chips and lettuce would be a vegan diet, but it’s not a rational vegan diet. Can we please focus on rational and not vegan? Would an omnivore who subsists on chicken tenders and mozzarella face nutritional deficiencies? No, which identifies the true problem here.

Ms. Planck provides sufficient fodder for link goodness. Read her original essay on the irresponsible parents who fed their son soy milk and apple juice. Or read the background information on her New York Times article, offered at her home page, which includes this from a family practitioner she interviewed:

‘… Most breast-fed vegan children will do okay until solids are introduced, as long as the vegan mother is well nourished. Most commonly you see Vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies in vegan children. Vegan families must place close attention to protein sources, calcium, Vitamins D and B12, and iron. Often this can be achieved via fortified foods, but I’ve seen that not all vegan parents want to choose these types of foods. …’

The doctor explicitly states that veganism isn’t dangerous, but poor nutrition is. This is not news. And anecdotal evidence that “not all vegan parents want to choose these types of foods” is different than the claim that veganism is to blame. Do all omnivorous parents choose the types of foods with sufficient nutrition for their children? Maybe I’ll theorize instead that omnivorous parents are lazy because they don’t want to put any thought into nutritional planning for their families, so they just throw a few slabs of meat on the table since the animal most likely got all of its nutrients from plants. I could argue that, and I’d be on roughly the same illogical level as the article Ms. Planck wrote, but I won’t. I have a functioning brain.

Finally, perhaps you’d like to read the description of her book, which portrays the book as more of a polemic against the industrialization of food. I haven’t read the book, but I probably agree with her argument if she’s saying the processed nature of the modern diet is harmful. Again, that’s more about proper nutrition than veganism.

Update (1:47pm): Sherry Colb has an excellent take-down of Ms. Planck’s article, including a legal flaw in Ms. Planck’s use of Crown Shakur’s death to further her anti-vegan message. Thanks to Kip for the link.