Vegan Parenting Under Fire–Again

I am beginning to wonder if the New York Times editorial board (the folks who write editorials, select freelance Op-Ed pieces and who maintain The Opinionator blog) hate vegans.

Last year, the Times published an anti-vegan screed by Nina Planck in which she shrilly likens feeding children a vegan diet to child abuse in response to the widely publicized conviction of two supposedly vegan parents in Atlanta of murder, involuntary manslaughter and child cruelty for starving their baby to death.

Then, on Monday, in The Opinionator, they posted about a case in Scotland where a 12 year old girl who has been on a “strict meat and dairy free diet” for her entire life has developed a severe case of rickets. Officials in the UK are calling for charges to be brought against the parents because they believe that the parents’ choice of a vegan diet for their child is the ultimate cause of the degenerative bone disease.

Now, while it is possible that the cause of the severe case of rickets, which has resulted in her developing extreme curvature of the spine (she is described as having the spine of an 80 year old woman) and several bone fractures, is caused only by her parent’s choice of diet for her, it is not likely.

Rickets is generally caused by a vitamin D deficiency. The results of rickets are bone weakness as vitamin D is necessary for the human body to absorb calcium, which as we know, is the main building block that leads to strong bones and teeth. Rickets used to be very, very common in the western world, and entire families of children could be seen with the twisted spines, short stature, bowed legs and deformed pelvises which are characteristic of this serious disorder. Malnutrition was certainly a factor in these widespread cases of rickets, but the greatest causal factor of rickets tended to be lack of exposure to sunlight. This is one of the reasons why cases in rickets rose precipitously after the Industrial Revolution, when previously rural populations moved into urban environments and instead of working in the fields in the sunlight, they worked in dark factories for long hours, bereft of sunlight.

When it was discovered later that rickets was caused by lack of vitamin D in the form of sunlight, liver, or oily fish, enterprising health officials began calling for the addition of vitamin D to all cow milk sold in both the UK and the US. Since most children at that time drank large amounts of cow milk, it was considered to be an excellent preventative measure to enrich it. And, not surprisingly, after vitamin D because ubiquitous in milk, the incidence of rickets decreased to the point that it is now a very rare disorder in the developed nations of the west.

So, with this background information in mind, let us examine this current case of the twelve year old Scottish girl. Is it true that her parents’ insistence upon her eating a vegan diet the sole cause of her disease?

Now, depending on where in Scotland the girl lives, it is quite possible that she hasn’t had enough exposure to sunlight–the highlands, especially, tend to be fairly dark and drear in the weather department.

If that is the case, then it isn’t just the diet which is the cause of her rickets.

Now, it could be said that whether the rickets came about because of lack of sunlight or diet, it doesn’t matter. Rickets is not a sudden-onset sort of disorder–it happens over a span of time and to get to the point where the spine is curved dramatically and small fractures have occurred in the girl’s bones would take years. If this is a case of the parents “not noticing” the girl’s deformity or refusing to take her to doctors who would certainly notice and attempt to divine the cause of her disorder, then what we have here is not a case of a vegan diet being to blame, but neglectful parenting is to blame.

Parents who do not notice the gradual abnormal curvature of a child’s spine, or who ignore her pain (rickets is not asymptomatic–the bones hurt and are painful to the touch–and the fractures that occur often with the disease are also painful), or who do not take the child to a competent physician for regular checkups are neglectful and ignorant at best, uncaring and abusive at worst. What they feed their child or not feed her is beside the point once they reach this level of carelessness or neglect.

So, let me reiterate once again that just because some vegan parents are ignorant, lazy, misinformed, careless, neglectful or abusive, that does not mean that all vegan parents are like them!

Just as not every omnivorous parent feeds their children diets of junk food which result in childhood obesity and type II diabetes, not every vegan is causing malnourishing their children.

So, please, let us not be like some of the commentors on the NY Times blog or the Times of London website and instantly decry every vegan parent in the world because of this sad case, and recognize that human ignorance and carelessness comes in all shapes, sizes and philosophies.

26 Comments

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  1. Both of these stories make me so terribly ill, not because the parents were vegan, not because people are decrying veganism, but because these parents were STUPID and irreparably harmed their precious children.

    They didn’t do enough research, ask enough questions, PAY ATTENTION to their child’s declining health to know that it can be tricky to get all the vitamins, minerals, and trace elements that a growing body needs.

    Is it impossible? of course not, but it does require knowledge, and a decent amount of common sense.

    Comment by Magpie — June 11, 2008 #

  2. Well great. But what about parents who don’t feed their kids enough greens, parents of morbidly obese children and parents who overload toddlers on sugar and caffeine.

    Wish I were vegan. It’s not an easy life style way out here, with a carnivore and a child with massive food allergies. But it makes good sense to me.

    Comment by Jasi — June 11, 2008 #

  3. Ugh, this is just unbelievable. Virtually all commercial soymilk — a staple in almost every vegan diet — is Vitamin D fortified. I did a quick Google to check and this seems to be true in the UK too. I can’t believe the irresponsible reporting being done on this subject. Not to even mention that many people get their Vitamin D RDA from sunlight?! These reporters should be indicted for neglectful reporting, along with the parents being indicted for neglectful parenting.

    Comment by Alexis — June 11, 2008 #

  4. My guess is that the parents are macrobiotics or raw foodists, or followers of some other diet more extreme than just veganism. That would explain the nutrient deficiencies and also the parents’ failure to take the girl to a doctor: People who are so arrogant (or have fallen so far off their rockers) that they think the very best diet for human health is one that’s contrary to all of science and common sense tend also to believe that medical professionals don’t know what they’re talking about.

    It burns me up that the mainstream press always describes such people as just “vegans.” It makes the rest of us look bad.

    Comment by Johanna — June 11, 2008 #

  5. It’s been a very long time since I’ve taken my Nutrition requirement, but I distinctly recall our instructor (RD) telling us that an “ideal” vegetarian diet would benefit most adults, however it seemed to her that most vegetarians, especially new ones, didn’t always eat an “ideal” vegetarian diet. She seemed to believe that after a while, most people dedicated to vegetarianism would eventually receive good info and educate themselves to eating more ideally, or fall off the vegetarianism bandwagon.

    But I once saw older teens declare themselves vegetarian, then eat junk food (including commercial snacks with dairy products and lard), lots of grains and fruits, but hardly any vegetables. Their step-mother was concerned about their “fad” diet, so I suggested she cook using plenty of vegetables, and even some yummy smelling meats to see if they were dedicated to vegetarianism, or just being trendy. If they stuck to it, perhaps she should get some books on proper vegetarianism nutrition, and demand that if they’re going to stick with it, then do it the right way instead of eating mostly processed foods and pasta.

    Now imagine parents that thought like those older teens giving a young child a diet like theirs. A child’s nutritious are higher than most adults. And a child that’s not very health to begin with would suffer from a poorly-planned diet without at least dairy products, with calcium and fortified Vit D.

    As far as prosecuting parents, if meat/dairy-eating parents’ child had advanced rickets, they’d also probably be investigated and maybe charged. But after learning they didn’t allow the girl any dairy, I’m not surprised, or upset at the officials decision.

    Removing a very good source of protein, and especially dairy with fortification, from a child’s diet should require more planning to ensure the child’s needs are being met with other sources. I’m guessing these parents went into it without studying much, and it seems their child suffered for it.

    Comment by Sherri — June 11, 2008 #

  6. Once again, you’ve hit the nail on the head, as did “the other Alexis” ;). Current medical school curriculum (at least where I’m a student) focuses on the fact that all points north of about mid-Wisconsin (Boston, for example) don’t get enough UV light even in the summer to really make regular Vitamin D production feasible. And most places north of the Mason-Dixon line don’t get nearly enough UV light in the winter either. And that’s without taking cloud cover into effect. Scotland is not the place to get a tan, nor is it the place to make Vitamin D.

    That said, it’s in just about Everything, vegan or not, that’s on the shelves, because it’s so darn easy to put into food.

    I’m a little surprised this poor kid didn’t show up with some other problem first. If this was, in fact, a case of poor food choices (not veganism itself), I’d have expected there to be other dietary deficiencies that would show up far sooner.

    There are some rare congenital forms of rickets, and I haven’t read the articles, so I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned whether or not this girl was tested for those…… Regardless, I hold the parents accountable for not noticing and checking sooner. But it’s sad that “Veganism” gets blamed again – an easy target rather than a legitimate one.

    Comment by Alexis E — June 11, 2008 #

  7. I don’t care what people do or do not eat. However, I get sick of the vegan “holier than thou” attitude. My acupuncturist sees plenty of vegans who are proud that they have not touched dairy in decades. He says most of them are not in the great health they think they are. “And when menopause hits, they are going to think they are on fire.”

    Comment by artcargirl — June 11, 2008 #

  8. Sherri, please check your facts. Dairy is not the only Vitamin D fortified food available, as Barbara and I both mentioned.

    But I once saw older teens declare themselves vegetarian, then eat junk food (including commercial snacks with dairy products and lard), lots of grains and fruits, but hardly any vegetables.

    By the way, fruits have many of the same nutrients as vegetables.

    Minus the fruit, I tend to refer to this kind of diet as being a “cheese and junk food vegetarian” and it’s no more (or less) admirable than being a meat, cheese, and junk food omnivore. It’s poor nutrition either way. (That’s one of the reasons I transitioned into vegetarianism gradually — to learn to eat vegetables instead of just replacing meat with bread and cheese.)

    Comment by Alexis — June 11, 2008 #

  9. Thanks for a good post on the subject. It’s sad to hear about conditions like this, but some googling shows that in one part of Lancashire alone, some 60 cases of rickets were found between 2003-2005 (particularly among the asian community–skin color is always a factor for vit D). So the decrying of veganism is hardly appropriate; this is almost certainly a case of neglect as you wrote!

    And not only are non-dairy milks a fine source of vitamin D, but of protein and other nutrients as well. And at the same time, you don’t risk as much pesticide buildup–which does happen in dairy when cows ingest plants that were grown with pesticides. (Non-organically grown soybeans like the GM pesticide-resistant varieties may not be better, but are easily enough avoided. But again, it escapes the concentration that occurs in cows fed similar ilk.) This effect can be easily seen in studies of the pesticide content of human mothers’ milk, where vegans had the least and meat-eaters the most, with lacto-ovo vegetarian mothers in the middle (if I recall, meat contributed far more than milk or eggs though).

    artcargirl: are your acupuncturist’s vegan patients (or are they marks?) intended to be an example of holier-than-thou vegans? It sounds more like people who are just happy to live by their consciences (if being a bit self-deluded at the same time). Veganism tends to be about what you kill/harm, not so much what you eat. Hopefully this doesn’t sound self-righteous!

    Comment by Bryan — June 11, 2008 #

  10. I think parents just need to be careful, and if you limit your diet you need to be more careful. No matter how it is limited. I am vegan in Scotland bring up a vegan child and I do my best to close attention to making sure my family has a balanced diet. I have to say that in one on one situations I don’t get these kind of attitude. It is very frustrating to see these kinds of articles in the media. A more balanced discussion of the issue , both the blog and many of the comments can be found on the guardian website:
    http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/food/2008/06/is_veganism_child_abuse.html

    Comment by Robin F — June 12, 2008 #

  11. My guess is that if we all took nutrition advice from our acupuncurists, then there’d be a lot more cases of malnutrition out there.

    Comment by sgt pepper — June 12, 2008 #

  12. My sister tried to be a vegetarian for a while and ended up anemic due to lack of iron in her diet.

    BUT, she was one of those junk-food vegetarians. She didn’t replace the iron in meat with another iron source. She ended up going back to eating meat again after she stopped menstruating.

    So yeah, a vegetarian diet has to be done right to work, and it seems that in our society that’s hard to do. Maybe it’s easier in another culture where vegetarianism is more the norm and there’s isn’t as much filling but nutritionally deficient junk food around. It seems to me that being healthy on a vegan diet takes a lot of planning. Good for you if you can handle it though!

    I agree this is a case of dumb parents, just of the vegan variety, and are just as bad as any other neglectful parents.

    Comment by Neohippie — June 12, 2008 #

  13. Neohippie, was your sister diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia by a doctor, or did she diagnose herself based on the missed period (and maybe some other symptoms like fatigue)? I ask because, while lack of iron can sometimes cause those things, a much more likely cause, especially in a new vegetarian, is lack of calories.

    If you take the standard American diet and just remove all the meat (which is what a lot of new vegetarians do, especially if they don’t cook for themselves and whoever cooks for them is hostile to the idea of making vegetarian food), you’re often left with things like iceberg lettuce based salads, bland boiled vegetables, and only small portions of grains and starches. Not a very calorie-dense diet, and also not a very interesting diet – if those were the only foods available to me, I wouldn’t be inclined to eat very much. In addition, new vegetarians may often find themselves in situations where there’s no vegetarian food for them to eat (because they don’t know how to find it, or aren’t confident asking for it), and they think they’re being virtuous by eating nothing at all. All of these things are factors that can lead to calorie deficiency being a bigger problem than anything else among new vegetarians.

    You say that “it seems” to you that it’s hard to be a healthy vegetarian, and that being a healthy vegan takes “a lot of planning.” What are you basing this on, apart from your sister’s experience? As a healthy, well-nourished vegan myself, I don’t think my diet takes a lot of planning. It does take some planning. Whenever I go to a new city, for example, I check out where the veg and veg-friendly restaurants are beforehand. And it takes familiarity with foodstuffs (beans, lentils, soy foods, brown rice, quinoa, beets, mustard greens, olives…) and cuisines (Indian, Thai, Burmese, Moroccan, Lebanese, Ethiopian…) that weren’t so much a part of the not-particularly-cosmopolitan omnivorous diet on which I grew up. But since food is a pleasure for me, not a chore (and most vegans I know feel the same way), I don’t mind devoting a little extra time to learning about it one bit. Hey, that’s why I’m here.

    Comment by Johanna — June 12, 2008 #

  14. If it is about not doing harm, I hope they are not driving a car and live in a totally green house.

    Comment by artcargirl — June 13, 2008 #

  15. “If it is about not doing harm, I hope they are not driving a car and live in a totally green house.”

    This is the old argument that says that if you can’t be 100% perfect, then you shouldn’t do something at all, and it is bogus.

    While many vegans surely do try to drive less and live in a more eco friendly house (I certainly do try), you can’t seriously be arguing that attempting to reduce harm is hypocritical if one can’t eliminate all harm caused by every aspect of life, can you?

    I think most vegans realize that some aspects of their lives inevitably cause harm, but that doesn’t stop them from taking some small steps toward what they believe will reduce some harm.

    Comment by sgt pepper — June 14, 2008 #

  16. I think the whole idea of veganism is bogus. Society as a whole has had to harm a lot of living things to reach a point where vegans can live in their smug little bubble. The idea that what they are doing is healthy and harmless is delusional.

    Comment by artcargirl — June 14, 2008 #

  17. I’m afraid I don’t see what you’re getting at, artcargirl. The United States as a whole has harmed a lot of Black, Native American, and Asian people in order to get to where it is. Does that mean that those who attempt to fight racism today are living in a “smug little bubble”?

    Comment by Johanna — June 14, 2008 #

  18. “Society as a whole has had to harm a lot of living things to reach a point where vegans can live in their smug little bubble.”

    I’m not sure what your point is with this statement. Obviously, societies have caused much harm in the name of “progress,” but you’re living in that same little bubble that we all are. Your figurative bubble certainly wasn’t created for vegans, but here we all are in it together. What’s that got to do with anything? And what do past events have to do with trying to cause less harm now? We can’t rewrite history, but we can do our best to cause less harm now. You don’t have to go vegan to cause less harm, but that is one way to do it. Where does your enmity towards people who want to cause less harm come from?

    Comment by sgt pepper — June 14, 2008 #

  19. “The idea that what they are doing is healthy and harmless is delusional.”

    Where is this coming from? Your acupuncturist again?

    It’s pretty easy to scientifically prove that vegan diets can be very healthy (not all of them are, but a well planned vegan diet is easily as healthy as a well planned omnivorous diet, and arguably can be healthier). This is common knowledge and is even acknowledged repeatedly by the meat/dairy eater who writes this blog, so again, where are you getting your information?

    I agree to some extent that any vegans who thinks they can live a harm-free life are delusional, but it’s also very obvious and easy to prove that the standard vegan diet causes less harm than the standard omnivorous diet. Not all vegan diets cause less harm, and a vegan who relies mostly on industrial vegan foods may very well cause more harm than some omnivores, like the author of this blog and many posters here who go to great lengths to eat consciously and to reduce the harm that their omnivorous diets cause to animals and to the planet. For that matter, why isn’t some of your ire directed at them? Many of them are also trying to eat a more healthful diet and cause less harm. Are they also living in a smug little bubble or what’s the deal?

    Comment by sgt pepper — June 14, 2008 #

  20. One last thing artcargirl, do you read this blog? Have you seen the many posts in which the author argues for self sufficiency and reduced waste through home gardening and eating locally? Have you seen the posts where she comments on the cruelty of industrialized meat in America? One of the central themes I see running through this blog is trying to be healthy and trying to reduce harm (is it just me?). So I ask you, is the author of this blog acting “holier than thou?” If you think so, then I wonder what you’re doing here reading these essays and commenting at all, and if you don’t think she is then I have to wonder what major differences you see between her philosophies and the philosophies of a vegan. Please explain.

    Comment by sgt pepper — June 14, 2008 #

  21. I have to say, the standard Scottish diet is considered to be the unhealthiest diet in all of Europe. This would have to be a pretty ill-thought-out vegan diet to compete with it.

    Comment by Eve — June 15, 2008 #

  22. Well, all we really know about the diet is that it was deficient in vitamin D. And for vegans in a sun-poor area like Scotland, the only real sources of vitamin D are dietary supplements and fortified processed foods. So a diet that avoids processed foods (by focusing on fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and other whole plant foods) can be very healthy in every other respect, but result in severe deficiency in vitamin D (and also vitamin B12).

    I don’t know if this is the sort of diet that this particular girl ate. But in the majority of cases I’ve read about where a vegan diet results in a nutrient deficiency (usually involving breastfed infants of vegan mothers developing B12 deficiency), that’s how it happens.

    Comment by Johanna — June 15, 2008 #

  23. @Alexis – Had my main point been about Vit D and its various sources, rather than *becoming vegetarian without research, ending up a junkfood vegetarian*, I probably would have looked up and included information about Vit D sources.

    Since I am not a vegetarian, and consume dairy and greens for calcium, and eat salmon and take Vit D supplements, and also try to eat magnesium rich foods or supplement occasionally for it, I’m not too concerned about my bone health to research it just to comment on a blog post, especially when my point is not about Vit D sources.

    However, if I decided to become a vegetarian, I would certainly research Vit D sources to ensure I was getting enough of it, as well as the nutrients listed above. I believe that most intelligent vegetarians have already done this, but obviously not everyone does, as stories like my friend’s teens shows, and possibly the parents with the daughter having rickets.

    Comment by Sherri — June 15, 2008 #

  24. I’m a vegetarian, have been one all my life 35+ yrs :=) half the population in my country is vegetarian ( india) , true we eat diary and it’s not as extreame as vegan, but absolutely no meat no eggs either. didn’t need too muc reading up to be one, it’s a way of life,didn’t need to consume supplements either, i have 2 healthy kids ( begetarians again) and finished the boston marathon in under 3.20 …btw my grandparents are in their late 80′s and leading active lifestyles, no sign of any diseases or alzheimers either. so i wouldn’t diss the vegetarian way of life so easily. If you are a meat eater then maybe it’s hard to understand the choice just liek i find it hard to understand why someone would eat flesh!!!

    Comment by Mythili — June 17, 2008 #

  25. Gathered the news on Visitthebest.it was interesting and shared the contents to my teacher too.

    Comment by Best Parenting Websites Guide — June 18, 2008 #

  26. Johanna,

    Actually, I don’t know if my sister was diagnosed or not, I just heard about the pregnacy scare! Maybe her health problems were caused by something else, but as I understand it, she did basically remove meat from her standard American diet, which is I know is not the right way to do it.

    I suppose what I meant is that there are ways to really mess up a vegetarian diet, and I know that doesn’t mean a vegetarian diet is unhealthy in and of itself.

    As for the planning, well, it’s probably not a bad thing to have to think about your food more anyway. I have a friend who keeps strictly kosher and it seems he has similar issues to strict vegans about making sure he can get food that’s ok for him to eat (and before I knew him I didn’t realize it was more complicated than just not eating pork and keeping meat and milk separate).

    I didn’t mean to make vegetarianism sound impossible to pull off or anything like that. I’m sure there are lots of very well-nourished vegans out there.

    Comment by Neohippie — June 18, 2008 #

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