By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD
About 5 years ago, The New York Times published an op-ed sensationally headlined “Death by Veganism.” This opinion piece created a great deal of outcry, because of its incorrect information and shaky foundation. The Public Editor of the Times said, “I think The Times owes its readers the other side, published on the op-ed page, not just in five letters to the editor that briefly took issue with her” and asked, “And what is the obligation of editors to make sure that op-ed writers are not playing fast and loose with the facts?”
Last week The Times included another opinion piece by the same writer that takes issue with vegan diets for infants and children. I hesitated about even responding to this, hating to call attention to an article that is so filled with misinformation. I do think, however, that those who are raising (or are considering raising) children on vegan diets need good information to support their decision and to help them respond to others who may use this article as a way of questioning their choice. VRG’s website offers many great resources for parents.
While space prevents addressing every one of the questionable statements, here are a few:
“The breast milk of vegetarian and vegan mothers is dramatically lower in a critical brain fat, DHA, than the milk of an omnivorous mother and contains less usable vitamin B6.”
Fact: DHA’s role in brain development is uncertain. An analysis of current research by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) concluded that while DHA supplements can increase the amount of DHA in breast milk, this increase does not necessarily lead to a
positive effect on brain development (1).
There have not been published reports of the vitamin B6 content of breast milk from vegetarians or vegans so I can’t understand where the statement about less usable vitamin B6 comes from. Vegetarians generally have adequate intakes of vitamin B6.
“Vegans, vegetarians and people with poor thyroid function are often deficient in carnitine and its precursors.”
There is also no evidence that vegetarians or vegans are deficient in carnitine or its precursors. While lower levels of carnitine have been reported in adult vegetarians compared to nonvegetarians, levels were within a normal range (2). Carnitine is not considered an essential nutrient because our bodies are able to make it from amino acids. The mother’s diet has little effect on the amount of carnitine in her breast milk (3).
“The most risky period for vegan children is weaning. Growing babies who are leaving the breast need complete protein, omega-3 fats, iron, calcium and zinc. Compared with meat, fish, eggs and dairy, plants are inferior sources of every one.”
Fact: Weaning is a tricky time, nutritionally speaking, for many children. Breast milk contains readily absorbed nutrients with ratios of protein, fat and carbohydrate that support the baby’s growth. Babies who are weaned to a diet high in empty calories or a diet focused mainly on cow’s milk can certainly have nutrition-related problems. Vegan diets can easily meet a toddler’s needs for protein, omega-3 fats, iron, calcium, and zinc. The 2010 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans includes a menu planning tool that can be used for vegan children age 2 and older. We also include menu planning guides on our website.
“Soy protein is not good for a baby’s first food…”
Fact: Who said soy protein should be a baby’s first food? While infants who are not breastfed do use soy formula (which has a long track record of successfully nourishing infants), breastfed infants are not usually given soy as a first food. Iron-fortified infant cereals are commonly used as an easily digested first food.
“Studies have shown that kids raised until age 6 on a vegan diet are still B12 deficient even years after they start eating at least some animal products.”
Fact: Vegan children can have adequate vitamin B12 status if their diet includes regular, reliable sources of vitamin B12. Reliable sources of vitamin B12 include foods fortified with vitamin B12 and vitamin B12 supplements.
“Vegans may believe it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources like seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and brewer’s yeast.”
Fact: With the many reliable websites (like this one) providing information on vitamin B12, I hope that vegans don’t believe that the foods just listed are good sources of vitamin B12.
The New York Times opinion piece was concluded with a call to parents raise their children as nonvegetarians and to allow them to choose their own diets as adults. I don’t get the logic – parents are choosing what foods their children eat, even if they are raising them as meat eaters. I could just as easily say that all parents should raise their children as vegans and then, if the children grow up and want to eat meat, that would be their choice. As parents, we make choices for our children, based on what we think is in their best interest.
Each family makes their own choices about feeding their children. I can only hope that the misinformation in the Times’ article will not deter parents from choosing to raise their children as vegans.
Ginny Messina, MPH, RD offers her take on The New York Times article on her blog, the Vegan R.D. at
1. James DCS, Lessen R. Position of the American Dietetic Association: promoting and supporting
breastfeeding. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:1926-42.
2. Lombard KA, Olson AL, Nelson SE, Rebouche CJ. Carnitine status of lactoovovegetarians and strict
vegetarian adults and children. Am J Clin Nutr 1989; 50:301-6.
3. Mitchell ME, Snyder EA. Dietary carnitine effects on carnitine concentrations in urine and milk in
lactating women. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991; 54:814-20.