They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Well, it’s even more dangerous when it’s wearing a lot of “respectable” titles.
In one of the most irresponsible and flat out ignorant statements of recent days, Dr. Lindsay Allen, currently of the US Agricultural Research Service, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that a vegan diet was so lacking in necessary nutrients that it is tantamount to child abuse.
Was this based on carefully conducted research? No. Was it based on structured study with control groups and meticulous monitoring of what children ate? No. Was it perhaps based on a large number of children eating a normal vegan diet who were found to have a greater than usual risk for illness? No. Her basis for this bizarre and completely unfounded declaration was her experience in Africa. Children who had been eating nothing but corn and beans were given a little meat and their health improved. Not children on a normal, healthy vegan diet – children who had been eating nothing but corn and beans. Adding almost anything to their diet would have caused improvement.
Just eating beans and corn isn’t an accurate representation of a vegan diet any more than it’s an accurate representation of a kosher diet. So what do you find when you look at children who are eating a normal vegan diet?
Children raised on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes grow up to be slimmer and healthier and even live longer than their meat-eating friends
Vegetarian and vegan diets can be a healthy way of eating for all age groups
Vegan diets can easily meet the nutritional needs of the growing child.
So why, then would a USDA representative make such a ridiculous claim? Could the many and strong ties between the USDA and the meat industry be one reason?
To find another, one need only look to who paid for this “study” — none other than the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. (See Footnotes)
One of the more appalling aspects of this is that they are experimenting on starving children. These are kids who are clearly starving, they are not eating a “vegan” diet but a starvation diet. And yet these meat industry “researchers” don’t feed the starving, they don’t give them enough food, they do some weird pro-animal food experiment to try to twist it into a political point to help the bottom line of the meat industry.
Imagine 554 children in rural Wyoming are eating a starvation diet that consists almost exclusively of beans and corn. As a result, many of them have stunted growth and are underweight. Nearly all of them suffer from a broad array of malnutrition-related illnesses. How many of them do you feed? All of them? Or do you decide to conduct an experiment to see what happens if you feed some and let the others continue to suffer for a couple of years?
You’d feed all of them, of course. In the United States, deliberately starving children for research purposes is a criminal act that would provoke justifiable outrage. Unfortunately for the children in Dr. Allen’s study, they were in Kenya.
Dr. Allen and her colleagues are physicians and nutritionists. Whatever their questions were about the value of adding meat to a diet, they knew corn and beans is a starvation diet. Yet, in their Kenya study, more than 100 children were required to stay on that diet for nearly two years.
While we know a great deal about the benefits of a vegan diet, there is always more to learn. Expanding the horizons of knowledge is a noble calling. But when we go beyond the bounds of human decency to advance the agenda of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, something is seriously wrong.
Consider writing your Congressional representatives and demanding that that the USDA and meat industry stop experimenting on young, starving children, and ask for an investigation. You can find your representatives contact info here:
Vesanto Melina RD comments:
I was called by the BBC to respond to the story “Children ‘Harmed’ By Vegan Diets”. I am co-author of “Becoming Vegan”, by dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina, distributed in the UK by Airlift books; www.airlift.co.uk.
Lindsay Allen, of the US Agricultural Research Service had done a study in which providing animal products such as butter, cheese, milk, and meat improved the health and growth of impoverished and undernourished Kenyan children. Professor Allen failed to recognize that an assortment of plant foods that were nutrient rich and higher in protein and calories would have helped too. The findings from this study are not applicable to vegan children in the developed world.
In our book “Becoming Vegan” we explain how to create a balanced and nutritionally adequate vegan diet. Everyone doesn’t automatically know to do this properly, and certainly the authors of this study didn’t. Whatever diet people use to raise their children, they typically need to learn a few nutrition pointers and tips about feeding children properly. For vegan diets this is particularly true as most vegans were not raised on this diet. But research has shown that it can be done and result in children of same height and weight statistically as the norms (though there tend to be fewer obese children among the vegan population.) Whatever their dietary choice, pregnant women and children are more vulnerable than people at other stages of the life cycle because of their fast rate of growth. It makes sense to take extra care in planning a nutritionally adequate diet for these stages.
It is not true that animal products contain essential nutrients that are not found anywhere else. Animal products are unique sources of certain substances such as cholesterol. However dietary cholesterol is not essential; we make what we require in our bodies and too much may be a risk factor for disease. Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria and is present in animal products as a result of bacterial contamination. Properly designed vegan diets contain vitamin B12 from fortified foods or supplements. Vegans obtain sufficient calcium from fortified soy milk, calcium-set tofu; sesame seeds, almonds, blackstrap molasses, white or black beans; and greens such as kale; bok choy, Napa cabbage, and broccoli.
Professor Allen’s assertion that feeding children a vegan diet was unethical is unfounded, and reflects the fact that Professor Allen does not know how to create a nutritionally adequate vegan diet. Considering the risk factors related to in a diet high in animal products, it can be viewed as unethical to feed your child a diet high in animal products, and to set your child up for a future that increases his or her risk of various cancers, cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
Vesanto Melina, MS, Registered Dietitian Langley, B. C. Canada Phone: (604) 882-6782 http://www.nutrispeak.com.
Brenda Davis RD comments:
I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the statement by Lindsay Allen, from the University of California at Davis, “There is absolutely no question that it’s unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans.” Dr. Allen contends that vegan diets are nutritionally deficient and will delay or permanently impair development of children. Her allegations are based on a study of 554 school children in Kenya, in which malnourished children fed energy-deficient diets were divided into four groups – one that served as a control, and the other three that had beef, milk or oil added to their diets. Not surprisingly, adding animal foods to their diet improved growth and development of these children. If the researchers really wanted to prove the superiority of animal foods over plant foods, they might have provided the control group with protein-rich plant foods such as tofu or soy burger crumbles. This would seem to me a more ethical choice, considering the fact that these children were suffering from malnutrition. However, doing so would have demonstrated that it is not vegan diets that are inadequate, but rather energy, fat, and protein deficient diets that are inadequate. That would have defeated the purpose of the organization which funded the research, namely the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (US).
The question of adequacy of a vegan diet is one that has been thoroughly addressed in scientific literature. The position of the American Dietetic Association, according to their most current position paper on vegetarian diets, is as follows:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The position paper goes on to add, “Appropriate planned vegan and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets satisfy the nutrient needs of infants, children, and adolescents and promote normal growth.”
The American Dietetic Association has long been regarded as a very reliable and conservative professional organization, and their position statements are made with great attention to research. There is solid scientific evidence that vegan diets can be completely adequate when appropriately planned. Two classic studies were done in the late 1980’s – one in Great Britain and the other in the United States. Dr. Tom Sanders carried out the first study in Great Britain in 1988. This study followed 39 vegan children for over 20 years. Dr. Sanders determined that these children grew normally, although they did tend to be slightly lighter than their omnivorous peers. Dr. Connell did the second study in Summertown Tennessee in 1989. This was also a long-term study looking at 404 vegan children. This study found that the vegan children had a slower growth curve than omnivorous children, but that they caught up by the age of 10 years. The vegan children developed completely normally – physically and intellectually. In both cases the authors conclude that provided the vegan diet is appropriately designed, it can meet all of the nutritional requirements of infants and children.
There is no doubt that poorly designed diets result in malnutrition – whether the diets are vegan or omnivorous. Constructing a nutritionally adequate vegan diet has never been easier. Consuming a wide variety of legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and ensuring sufficient calories, and reliable sources of vitamins B12 and D (several foods are fortified with these nutrients) will do the trick for most people. There are veggie “meats” that provide similar quality and quantity of protein and trace nutrients as meat, and non-dairy milks that provide similar amounts of calcium, vitamin D and B12 as cow’s milk. The plant-based alternatives come packaged with protective antioxidants and phytochemicals, instead of saturated fat and cholesterol. In a place where over 70% of the population will die of chronic degenerative diseases that are largely induced by low fiber, animal-centered, processed food diets, vegan diets are an attractive alternative. In fact, eating a plant-based diet will cut your risk of such diseases in half. A standard North American diet of cheeseburgers and fries, presweetened cereals, potato chips and soda pop is a far greater threat to health than a well-planned vegan diet will ever be.
Brenda Davis, Registered Dietitian
Co-author, Becoming Vegan, The New Becoming Vegetarian
John McDougall MD points out more meat industry sponsorship of the publications and conferences involved in disseminating this “study” — see his post here.
Of further interest, here is an abstract on a recently published article by Professor Chandrasekhar in India. He used soy protein to improve the diet of Indian children, resulting in significant (P<0.01) improvement in the heights, weights and the hemoglobin levels of the children. Also, their morbidity pattern and cognition improved remarkably.
This approach would be more economical, more ethical and healthier than feeding malnourished children meat in an atempt to improve these health parameters.
Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2004;13(Suppl):S118. Soy proteins – an ideal functional food for growth promotion.
Chandrasekhar U. Former Dean,Professor & Head, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, Avinashilingam University,Coimbatore-641043,India.
Introduction: Soy though a native food of South East Asia, it is a new under exploited food in the India context. Growth promoting effects of soy in health particularly among women and children is much-sought information under the current nutritional scenario in India, hence the objective of this research.
Methodology: Defatted soy flour to replace the legume protein in the school lunch diet of preschool children (1200) was studied over a period of one year. Anthropometrics parameters, blood hemoglobin levels, clinical picture, physical and mental abilities of children formed the criteria for evaluation. In another attempt grade II malnutrition children (400) of 1-2 years of age were supplemented with the developed soy protein isolate (SPI) based food mix at a level (62g) to fill the calorie gap in their home diet and their growth parameters monitored over a period of one year.
Results: Significant (P<0.01) improvement in the heights, weights and the hemoglobin levels of children given soy flour substituted lunch was observed. A decrease in the manifestation of clinical symptoms, significant improvements in the physical ability attributes and in the mental ability scores were evident. A proportionate increase with increases in the levels of substitution was also observed. Among the grade II malnutrition children given SPI based food mix, a significant improvement in their height (supplemented vs. control: 4.5 cm vs. 0.92 cm), weight (5.05 kg Vs 0.84 kg), arm, chest and head circumstances (0.29 cm vs. 0.07 cm; 1.30 cm vs. 1.09 cm and 1.24cm vs. 0.19 cm) respectively were recorded. 90.5 % of children in the supplemented group shifted to normal grade and the remaining 9.5 to grade I status. Their morbidity pattern and cognition improved remarkably.
Conclusion: Considering the cost effectiveness of soy, this result on child growth undoubtedly signifies soy as the ideal functional food of the era for the promotion of good health of future generation