Standing on a Shaky Planck


I suspect everyone with a veg-themed blog will be thwacking this terrible NY Times op-ed piece.  I know Erik has, though I haven’t had a chance to listen yet and Isa took a good shot that I read earlier this morning.  Here’s what I’ve got to add, with apologies for repeating any arguments you may have read elsewhere.

Nina Planck is the author of “Real Food: What to Eat and Why.”

I wanted to start with the byline.  Please note that this was written by somebody with something to sell.  She has no formal training in nutrition (note: neither do I, but I’m not writing books about the subject).  Just saying.

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.

This is purely anecdotal evidence, but everyone I’ve ever met who was “once a vegan” either a.) really wasn’t a vegan or b.) did it for a couple weeks for health purposes (never mind that veganism is an ethical way of life and not just a diet).  I’d like to hear a little bit more about her stint as a vegan.  I’m really curious because she must have been doing something pretty wrong in her own diet to conclude that it was “irresponsible” to be a pregnant vegan.

There are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long run.

Source please?  I suspect it’s less a reason of a vegan diet’s adequacy and more a reason of availability, control of food production, or reliance on historical/cultural precedent.  Our current world is much different than it was even 100 years ago.

Besides, if she says a vegan diet’s not adequate in the long run, she might want to read up on Donald Watson.  I’d say mid-90s classifies as the “long run.”  And what’s interesting is that I’m still trying to find these vegans with deficiencies.  It’s a lot easier to find omnis suffering from excesses.

Protein deficiency is one danger of a vegan diet for babies. Nutritionists used to speak of proteins as “first class” (from meat, fish, eggs and milk) and “second class” (from plants), but today this is considered denigrating to vegetarians.

I believe that this idea of “first class” and “second class” proteins goes along with the outdated notion of protein combining en vogue in the 1970s.  As long as you’re eating a varied diet of primarily whole foods, protein’s not an issue.  Back in 1982, Francis Lappe updated her classic Diet for a Small Planet to note that “In all other diets [other than fruit-based, tuber-based, or junk food-based], if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”

A vegan diet may lack vitamin B12, found only in animal foods;

A lot of this is due to the pesticides we use when growing vegetables, which makes them unsafe to eat unless they’re thoroughly cleaned.  However, a simple supplement takes care of this without much problem.

usable vitamins A and D, found in meat, fish, eggs and butter; and necessary minerals like calcium and zinc. When babies are deprived of all these nutrients, they will suffer from retarded growth, rickets and nerve damage.

Vitamins A and D as well as calcium and zinc are easy to get in a vegan diet.

Yet even a breast-fed baby is at risk. Studies show that vegan breast milk lacks enough docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the omega-3 fat found in fatty fish. It is difficult to overstate the importance of DHA, vital as it is for eye and brain development.

Most people can properly convert the Omega-3s in flax seed into EPA and DHA, but even for those that can’t, there are a number of vegan sources.

A vegan diet is equally dangerous for weaned babies and toddlers, who need plenty of protein and calcium. Too often, vegans turn to soy, which actually inhibits growth and reduces absorption of protein and minerals. That’s why health officials in Britain, Canada and other countries express caution about soy for babies. (Not here, though — perhaps because our farm policy is so soy-friendly.)

Again, I’d like to see a source quoted here, but I’m willing to bet it’s somehow tied to the dairy industry (as most anti-soy studies so far have been).  John Robbins has some useful info about mineral absorption and soy:

It is true that soybeans are high in phytates, as are many plant foods such as other beans, grains, nuts and seeds, and it is true that phytates can block the uptake of essential minerals, and particularly zinc. This would be a problem if a person consumed large amounts of phytates; for example, if they ate nothing but soybeans or wheat bran. But the phytic acid levels found in a plant-based diet including a serving or two of soy a day are not high enough to cause mineral absorption problems for most people eating varied diets. Furthermore, when soy products are fermented – as they are in tempeh, miso, and many other soyfoods – phytate levels are reduced to about a third their initial level. Other methods of soy preparation such as soaking, roasting and sprouting also significantly reduce phytate content.

While phytates can compromise mineral absorption to some degree, there is absolutely no reliable evidence that vegetarians who eat soyfoods “risk severe mineral deficiencies.” The complete adequacy of vegetarian diets is now so thoroughly proven and documented that even the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has acknowledged the legitimacy of meatless diets. In an official statement, these representatives of the beef industry declared, “Well planned vegetarian diets can meet dietary recommendations for essential nutrients.”

Back to Ms. Planck:

Historically, diet honored tradition: we ate the foods that our mothers, and their mothers, ate. Now, your neighbor or sibling may be a meat-eater or vegetarian, may ferment his foods or eat them raw. This fragmentation of the American menu reflects admirable diversity and tolerance, but food is more important than fashion. Though it’s not politically correct to say so, all diets are not created equal.

‘Tis true, but take a look at a whole foods vegan diet versus any of the fad diets and you’ll see one major difference: a vegan diet is sustainable for a lifetime while most others aren’t.

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.

I think someone needs to make a t-shirt based on the quote “Babies are built from protein, calcium, cholesterol and fish oil.”

Pieces like this one by Nina Planck seem to exist not to foster any sort of serious discussion about nutrition and diet, but for other purposes (selling books, selling papers).  Without citing any sources, it’s hard to take any claims that Planck makes seriously.  If you go out there and do the research, you’ll find that a well-planned vegan diet can be every bit as healthy as a well-planned omni diet.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

We all need to look at what we eat.  It’s not a “vegan thing.”  If you shovel food down your gullet and don’t have any concept about what’s good for you, it doesn’t matter if you’re omnivore, vegan, or breatharian — you’re going to have problems.

I’d challenge Ms. Planck or anyone else looking to cash in on the latest “VEGAN PARENTZ KILL BABY, OMG~!!” headline to debate with a dietician like Vesanto Melina or a vegan nutritionist so people can make up their minds based on facts rather than a piece of marketing fluff masquerading as an op-ed piece.