Safety of Vegan Diets for Babies

Vegan diets aren’t dangerous. However, people with irrational ideas about nutrition are. The stories of vegan parents who starved their babies because of mistaken beliefs about infant feeding are clear proof of that. It is horrible and it’s heartbreaking. But it has nothing to do with veganism.

Why is it that journalists can’t figure this out? Mary Elizabeth Williams’ article in Salon was another attempt to tie the actions of a handful of misinformed parents to veganism. She made the case that some babies in vegan families have suffered because they were fed inappropriate diets. And, then, she suggested that “whatever a parent’s personal beliefs, they must be continually adjusted and evaluated based on a child’s needs.”

I can’t argue with either of those observations. I’m just wondering what they have to do with the safety of vegan diets.

Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that appropriate vegan diets are safe for babies. (And in case you’re wondering, omnivore diets for babies need to be appropriate as well.) Williams could have shared some balanced perspective by contacting a nutrition expert on vegan nutrition. Instead, she tossed in a quote from anti-vegan Nina Planck. You may remember that Planck is a food writer who fancies herself an expert on nutrition but has neither the credentials nor knowledge to back up those beliefs.

I see two issues here for vegan activists. First there is no shortage of bad nutrition information floating around the internet. It creates the potential for people to make poor choices for themselves and their children.

Second, veganism is still pretty unusual in our society. Our diets are regarded with some suspicion and they give rise to lots of questions. This means it’s always more news-worthy when a vegan child gets sick than when a child in a meat-eating family develops deficiencies.

The fix then, seems obvious to me. We can change this situation by promoting evidence-based nutrition information. And by doing everything possible to move veganism into the mainstream. That’s how we can make these stories go away for good.

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24 Responses to Safety of Vegan Diets for Babies

  1. Jan Steven July 1, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    Greetings! I agree with all my heart. / jan

  2. Dan July 1, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    I was wondering about veganism as a potential cause of depression. Would you, Ginny, have any comment on that? In particular, deficiencies in certain amino acids (e.g. glutamine, tryptophan), B12, omega-3 fatty acids (DHA), zinc, iron and possibly other substances that are lower on a restricted diet (and for which vegans may not consider supplementing). Sorry that I don’t have any literature to back up this concern but I would appreciate your commenting on it. Dietary causes of depression are quite possible; in particular, tryptophan depletion leads to deficiency in serotonin and other brain monoamine neurotransmitters and is a disease model for depression.

  3. Rhys July 1, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    I agree with the two issues you see for vegan activists, but there might be another.

    I think one of the ideas behind the anti-vegan-baby alarmism is that veganism is a dietary restriction, and many people are generally suspicious of ethics- or religious-based restrictions for babies or children. Some people automatically conflate dietary restriction with nutritional deficiency (“the fewer kinds of food you eat, the fewer kinds of nutrients you get”), or at least with risking nutritional deficiency, especially if the restrictions aren’t motivated by nutritional concerns. Ethics-based veganism for babies, then, can get lumped into a category that would include Christian Scientist parents who withhold medical treatment from their babies for religious reasons, as unfair as that comparison may be.

    If a baby dies of a deficiency and the parents had a philosophy that inspired them to restrict their child’s diet in some way based on ethics or religion, for a lot of people, the obvious culprit will be the philosophy or religion that encouraged the restriction, since in their minds, restriction = deficiency risk. If a baby of omnivorous parents dies of some sort of deficiency, there is no restrictive philosophy to blame, so it can only be blamed on bad parenting.

    I think there’s also a perception that adults are fairly resilient to nutritional deficiencies, while babies are not. That would be irrelevant in this debate over raising babies vegan, except that some people tend to think of restriction and deficiency as going hand-in-hand. Because of that association, it’s easier to make the case that veganism is appropriate for adults than it is to make the case that veganism is appropriate for babies; babies have a reputation for being at risk of under-nourishment whereas adults might seem more at risk of over-nourishment. Being a dietary restriction that is often not motivated by nutritional concerns, many people will associate veganism with an under-nourishment tendency, and so it seems worse for babies than for adults. That makes it look to some people like vegan adults are imposing a philosophy on their powerless babies that works okay for the adults but not for their hungry, nutrient-needy babies.

    Parents are heavily judged for all their health-related baby decisions. They are expected to put their babies’ interests first, and so in general, making decisions for babies based on ethics that don’t appear to benefit the babies themselves will get the parent judgers riled up. Of course you would say that a healthy vegan diet for babies is just as good as a healthy omnivorous diet for babies, so there’s no sacrificing of human babies for non-human animals, but that’s an uphill battle when so many people have negative associations with ethics-based food restrictions for babies. And there’s no vegan health argument that proves veganism is by far the *best* for babies, is there? As far as nutritional credibility is concerned, it doesn’t help that so many vegan dietitians seem to have ethics as the initial motivation for their veganism.

    A lot of vegan babies growing up to be outspoken healthy vegan adults would help. So maybe more former vegan babies who are now vegan adults need to be making a big deal about how healthy and happy they are.

    • Ginny Messina July 2, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

      Rhys, if there is no health argument for veganism, then how can it be problematic when vegan dietitians are motivated by ethics? I’d be far more likely to question the credibility of someone who insists they know the one and only healthy way to eat. And if there is more than one way to eat to support good health, why not promote the option that is most ethical? I don’t see that as a problematic stance.

      • Rhys July 2, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

        That makes sense. I just mean it looks kind of bad that vegans can’t necessarily make the argument that they’re raising their babies/children as vegans because they think that’s nutritionally the best thing for them. Instead they have to say that it is ethically necessary but also equally as good, nutritionally, as an omnivorous diet. I think people might have trouble processing the idea that a vegan diet might be equally as good as an omnivorous diet, nutritionally, rather than clearly better or clearly worse. Then when you get babies involved, which people are hyper vigilant about, any suspicion they have that a vegan diet must be worse than an omnivorous diet will get exaggerated.

        I agree with you that vegan dietitians being motivated by ethics could be credibility enhancing in a way; certainly, the most credible plant-based-diet advocating nutrition experts seem to be ethically motivated, which proves your point. But it also seems like a bit of an image problem if the people saying that a vegan diet is okay for babies also happen to think that feeding a baby anything other than a vegan diet would be unethical. It has the appearance of ethics coming before nutritional science, even if in reality it’s the ethically motivated dietitians who pay the most attention to the science.

  4. Shar July 1, 2014 at 10:25 pm #

    Hiya, any links to good vegan food for kids? :)

  5. Lisa @The Valley Vegan July 2, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    Funny thing- babies with “milk allergies” are essentially vegan until they start eating solid foods, but no one likes to talk about that. My son, who nursed, drank zero dairy because he had the proper milk. He didn’t try meat until almost his first birthday. And then he didn’t even like it. At 12, he only eats meat when he chooses, which is rare. But I like leaving him the choice now because it seems like he’s making good choices on his own.

    Spooky, but he’s thrived “despite” being vegan. At 12, he’s 5’4″ and 130 pounds. I think he’s a-ok.

  6. Tim Wilson July 2, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    A little look into the authors bio’s reveals that she promotes bacon and butter with glee, most likely another conditioned weston price “foundation” dupe, so no surprise there. Sadly, it’s those types that get free run throughout the media. If they made a focus of every time a carni/omni child gets neglected, ill, starved, etc, like they do with the rare vegan child occurrence, it would be the daily headlines throughout the year.

  7. Erin July 2, 2014 at 9:26 am #

    I really appreciated this post. I happened to look at salon.com the other day and read the article that you referenced. It was really disheartening to me, because I am 8 months pregnant and have been vegan for the entire pregnancy and a few years prior to that. I plan on breast-feeding my baby and then feeding her vegan foods. It is hard to think that people will see this as putting the baby at risk, so reading thoughtful, well-researched information like the information you provide is so helpful to me. I read “Vegan For Her” and “Vegan for Life” to prepare for this pregnancy, and also have read “The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book” by Reed Mangels. I agree that as veganism becomes more mainstream, we will see less of these kinds of articles. I am grateful for the resources that make me feel confident about my vegan diet, so I can deal with anti-vegan articles. I agree with the poster Shar, in the future I’d love to see even more resources on vegan food for kids.

  8. Jasmine July 2, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    Hi Ginny,

    I am a young woman planning my first pregnancy for later this year – so obviously, this is very pertinent information for me. Are there any books you can recommend that really discuss this in depth? Is it covered in Vegan for Her? And is it possible that you may be writing your next book with a keen focus on babies?

    Thanks so much for all you do!

    • Ginny Messina July 2, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

      Jasmine, Vegan for Her has extensive info on vegan pregnancy, and I also highly recommend The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book by Reed Mangels.

      We have lots of good info on feeding vegan kids in Vegan for Life, and I would also recommend this article: http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/kids.php

      And this is a great page for a little inspiration! http://veganhealth.org/articles/realveganchildren

    • Miriam July 8, 2014 at 4:57 am #

      Also Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide by Sayward Rebhal and Kind Mama by Alicia Silverstone

  9. Toad July 2, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

    Exactly what studies were used to determine that a vegan diet is appropriate for pregnancy and/or babies? Do we really know that children raised vegan develop just as well as those eating a more traditional diet?

  10. Rhys July 4, 2014 at 9:47 am #

    I just now read that Salon story. What is your stance on vegans taking non-vegan medication, or giving it to their children? Do you think that goes against veganism and the animals or not? You’re right that the majority of Sarah Anne Markham’s parenting mistakes did not have to do with veganism. However, one of the risks she took with her child’s health did have to do with veganism, or at least seemed to: she didn’t want to give her child medicine that the doctor prescribed because she believed the medicine wasn’t vegan. Does that mean this case did in fact have *something* to do with veganism? Or do all responsible vegan parents make an exception for animal-product-containing medication (that was also tested on animals) for their children?

    • Ginny Messina July 4, 2014 at 10:31 am #

      I wouldn’t expect someone to risk their child’s health for veganism (or their own health for that matter). So yes, if there was truly no other alternative, then a responsible parent would choose a medication that isn’t vegan. A case in point is soy infant formula. It’s not vegan because it contains animal-derived vitamin D. But for vegan parents who can’t breast feed and who don’t have access to a milk bank (which is very expensive), then this formula is the only option.

      • Miriam July 8, 2014 at 5:07 am #

        I just try to keep the kids as healthy as possible with out medication… starting from natural child birth and breastfeeding. But if they really need an antibiotic, which is rare (my first son has only needed it once if 5 yrs). Then I give it to them. I think most other over the counter medications are unnecessary anyway and may have been tested on animals. All the vegans I know realize it’s impossible to be 100% vegan but we do our very best. My laptop is not vegan. I don’t know that there are any vegan laptops. Do I need my laptop more than my son needs an antibiotic for a severe ear infection?
        I do not know the particulars in this case and do not want to speculate but it made me wonder if saline fluids- often given in hospitals for dehydration- are vegan? Seems like they would be but who knows.

  11. Ariann July 4, 2014 at 9:05 pm #

    I’m still waiting to hear more about the Markham story in particular. There are things that don’t really line up. She supposedly refused to give a non vegan medication, but was already feeding her child non vegan formula (as I did and many other vegan parents do who don’t or can’t breast feed). While dehydration happens somewhat regularly with breast fed babies if their mother’s milk supply is low, it is very unusual with formula fed babies, when supply isn’t an issue. So there is already something kind of fishy if there is a dehydrated formula fed newborn. Why was the baby dehydrated? In what way could medication have helped (you don’t give medication for dehydration, you give fluids, and at that age, that just means more formula generally). Sounds like there was something else going on entirely, but it is impossible to know if this mother did anything irresponsible at all from the details that have been publicized. I have disagreed with our pediatrician several times, as many parents do. Nobody has ever threatened to take my child! I definitely think there is a privilege issue going on here, more than a vegan issue.

    I know dozens of vegan parents of young children. All of them have given non-vegan (I.e. Animal tested, potential animal ingredients) medicine and almost all of them have given non-vegan supplements. Breast feeding mothers routinely give d3 drops starting near birth and there wasn’t a vegan option for that until recently. All formula feeding parents are giving animal derived vitamin d through the formula.

  12. Leslie July 5, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    I found out I was pregnant at age 40 and was vegan throughout my pregnancy and gave birth to a healthy boy who is now 8 years old. He is vegetarian (he eats some cheese) but other than that no animal products. He is extremely happy, healthy, strong and he is proud to be a vegetarian. I do not worry about our diet, I took a prenatal supplement throughout my pregnancy and I give my son a vegan multivitamin to cover any vitamins/minerals that may be lacking in his diet (eg. during the “cracker” stage, when all he wanted was crackers). I think the media and advertisers have instilled unnecessary fear into peoples heads when it comes to our diets . Just eat a healthy, well balanced diet and stop worrying!!!

  13. B Hartman July 8, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    Ginny,
    I agree totally with your first two statements. Vegans diets are not unsafe but people with irrational ideas of nutrition are. It comes down to nutrition education BASED on evidence.
    I work at a pediatric hospital and we recently had a 1 year old vegan child come in with B12 deficiency. Mom was giving breast milk and coconut milk.
    the B12 concentrations in breast milk are directly reflective of maternal status so it is likely that mom also had marginal deficiency or sub-optimal B12 status. This is a good reminder that vegan moms who plan to breast feed should have their B12 status checked to ensure that they can provide enough B12 to their rapidly growing infant. The neurological damage from B12 deficiency that can occur can be permanent especially in children.
    The coconut milk is NOT a good choice for infants or children under the age of 2. It does not contain enough protein to promote growth.
    The recommendations for vegan children or children avoiding cow’s milk (over the age of 1) is to continue breastfeeding or use of formula (soy or equivalent) until the age of 2 in order to provide adequate protein and nutrients to promote normal growth and development. A fortified soy milk (not rice, almond, coconut, etc) can also be given AFTER 1 year of age.
    Parents also need to provide more nutrient dense foods to infants and toddlers as plant-based foods tend to be higher in bulk and lower in calories (good for adults not so good for growing bodies).

  14. unethical_vegan July 21, 2014 at 6:20 pm #

    Until more vegans start to publicly reject overly restrictive dietary practices, veganism is going to be unfairly associated with these kinds of tragedies. IMO, vegans need to be more intolerant of dietary intolerance that is not rooted in evidence (e.g. orthorexia).

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