Tragic incident casts light on zealot doctors’ disingenuous claims and moral arrogance
by Craig Weatherby
The word “tragedy” is often misused in reference to any and all deeply sorrowful events, regardless of the circumstances.
The term comes from ancient Greece, where a tragedy was a drama in which a protagonist suffered downfall or destruction through a flaw of character or a fateful conflict with the gods.
Serious misfortunes resulting from straightforward accidents, illness, or natural disasters can certainly be very sad, but they’re not specifically tragic.
The 2004 incident in which the infant son born to a vegan couple starved to death—which led to their recent murder conviction in Atlanta—seems tragic in the truest sense.
Vegans are the strictest variety of vegetarian, and will eat no meat, dairy, or animal products, including milk and eggs. Unlike vegans, so-called “lacto-ovo” vegetarians will eat milk (lacto) products and eggs (ovo). Worldwide, most vegetarians fall into this more moderate category.
The tragic 2004 incident in Atlanta—which echoes similar deaths in recent years—provides an opportunity to raise awareness of infants’ specific nutritional requirements, and to address some distortions perpetrated by medical doctors who double as zealous advocates of vegan diets.
Vegan diets are viable if nutritionally tricky options for informed adults, but reckless application of these all-plant regimens can put infants at risk.
Crown Shakur’s tragic death
On May 9 of this year, Jade Sanders, aged 27, and Lamont Thomas, aged 31 were sentenced to life in prison for the death of their malnourished 6-week-old baby boy, who was fed a diet consisting largely of soy milk and apple juice.
A jury found the couple guilty of malice murder, felony murder, involuntary manslaughter and cruelty to children.
The boy, named Crown Shakur, weighed just 3½ pounds when he died of starvation on April 25, 2004.
The baby was born at home, and defense lawyers said that Sanders and Thomas did not realize the baby was in danger. But the boy was so emaciated when finally brought into the hospital—located just across the street from his Atlanta home—that doctors could count his bones through his skin.
His parents’ negligence should not be misused to tar all vegan mothers and fathers, most of whom are eager to meet their infants’ nutritional needs, which cannot be supplied by soy milk and apple juice.
In fact, the Atlanta prosecutor did not blame Crown Shakur’s parents’ vegan philosophy for the boy’s death. Instead, he argued to the jury that the couple neglected and underfed the child for unknown reasons, and tried to use their quasi-religious approach to diet as a shield. (The parents’ defense bore similarities to the religious-rights argument often used by Christian Science adherents accused of fatally neglecting children’s medical needs in favor of prayer.)
The Atlanta conviction follows two other convictions of vegan parents found guilty of the deaths of vegan babies, in New York and Florida.
In 1990, the US FDA investigated after a two-month old girl in California was hospitalized with severe malnutrition. Her parents had fed her soy milk instead of infant formula. Because of this and a similar incident in Arkansas, the FDA issued a warning on June 13, 1990. Since then, most brands of soy milk include small warning labels.
The widespread perception of soy products as “health foods” seems to have led some parents—particularly vegans—to mistakenly believe that soy milk is a nourishing food for babies and children.
But unlike soy-based infant formulas, most soy milks—like the brand given to baby Crown Shakur—does not contain added B-1 or other nutrients essential to infants.
The subject of soy’s exaggerated reputation as a highly healthful food is too complex to address here. Suffice it to say that while whole soy foods such as tofu seem to offer some preventive health benefits, soy foods can block absorption of some nutrients.
While adult vegans can survive—and some may thrive—on their diets, most take supplements to get nutrients scarce in plant foods, such as vitamins B12 and D3 (a form proven superior to the vitamin D2 found in plants).
But the risk of nutritional error to vegan-fed infants is substantially greater because of their vulnerable status and special needs.
Vegan-diet advocates ignore inconvenient truths
Vital Choice friend and acclaimed food writer Nina Planck penned an opinion piece about the recent tragedy, which appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times, May 21, 2007. Nina Planck is the author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why, which offers an excellent, engaging examination of the time-tested and increasingly validated preventive health value of traditional diets.
As she wrote, “This particular calamity—at least the third such conviction of vegan parents in four years—may be largely due to ignorance. But it should prompt frank discussion about nutrition. 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.”
She went on to say, “Indigenous cuisines offer clues about what humans, naturally omnivorous, need to survive, reproduce and grow: traditional vegetarian diets, as in India, invariably include dairy and eggs for complete protein, essential fats and vitamins. There are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long run.”
The following quotes from Nina Planck’s op-ed essay in The New York Times reveals some of the inconvenient truths underlying the Crown Shakur starvation tragedy. (We added clarifying comments in brackets ):
- “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 [omega-3 DHA]. Children fed only plants will not get the precious things they need to live and grow.”
- “Responsible vegan parents know that breast milk is ideal. It contains many necessary components, including cholesterol (which babies use to make nerve cells), [omega-3 DHA] and countless immune and growth factors.”
- “[However, s]tudies show that vegan breast milk lacks enough docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the omega-3 fat found in fatty fish.”
- “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.”
- “… humans prefer animal proteins and fats to cereals and tubers, because they contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio. This is not true of plant proteins, which are inferior in quantity and quality—even soy.”
And as Nina writes on her web site, in regard to her Times essay, “Among many sources for this piece, I interviewed a family practitioner who treats many vegetarian and vegan families. The doctor's comments were useful but too long for the Times. Here they are:
‘The most significant issue with vegan infants is growth. I have seen cases of severe anemia and protein deficiency in vegan infants resulting in hospitalization and blood transfusion. Most breast-fed vegan children will do okay until solids are introduced, as long as the vegan mother is well nourished. Most commonly you see Vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies in vegan children.
‘Vegan families must pay close attention to protein sources, calcium, vitamins D and B12, and iron. Often this can be achieved via fortified foods, but I've seen that not all vegan parents want to choose these types of foods. Most vegan families I've met don't understand the importance of fat intake in the cognitive development of the baby.'
Vegan docs' distortions regarding dietary fats
The last point raised by Nina Planck’s physician-informant stems from ongoing research that continues to strengthen the case for fish as a very smart part of maternal diets. (To read about some of it, search our newsletter archive for "children".)
Fatty fish like salmon, sablefish, and sardines earned their ancient reputation as brain food for sound scientific reasons.
Animal foods and heart disease: vegans paint a distorted picture
Vegan advocates are quick to attribute America’s high rates of cardiovascular disease to animal fats, and not so quick to admit that the countries with the lowest rates are those that have the highest fish intake… including countries with high and low vegetable intakes, like Japan and Iceland.
While the statistical links between high intake of animal fats and high rates of cardiovascular disease are real, they also obscure a far more ambiguous picture than the one commonly disseminated by doctors and public health authorities.
The available evidence points to other, complicating factors—such as sedentary lifestyles, inadequate intake of vegetables and fruits, and excessive intake of dietary sugars and omega-6 fatty acids and omega-6 trans fats—as necessary elements in elevated rates of cardiovascular disease.
In addition to the abundant amounts of marine omega-3s needed to ensure optimal brain and eye development in fetuses and nursing infants, fatty fish provide the small amounts of cholesterol and saturated fatty acids needed for optimal brain, nerve, and hormonal health.
To hear some vegan doctors—and all too many ill-informed cardiologists—you’d think that cholesterol and saturated fatty acids were toxins. While not technically essential, because the body can make both, it is very hard to thrive without some substantial amounts of cholesterol and saturated fatty acids in your diet: especially cholesterol.
(The only exceptions are people whose cholesterol-metabolism mechanisms are, usually for genetic reasons, out of whack. But even most of them do not need to avoid cholesterol like the plague. Even the most hidebound physicians have been forced by new research to acknowledge that dietary cholesterol isn’t the villain it was once thought to be.)
Cholesterol is important for many reasons:
- Serves as the source of most fat molecules generated internally.
- Maintains neurotransmitter and brain function and builds brain and nerve tissue.
- Nourishes the immune system.
- Provides the insulation around nerves.
- Dietary cholesterol modulates cholesterol production in the liver.
- Protects liver function.
- Critical for normal cell function.
- Regulates mood.
- Needed for digestion of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K.
- Key hormones including estrogen and progesterone are made from cholesterol.
Over the long term, low-fat, low-cholesterol diets can be unhealthful, especially for women. These diets force the body to divert cholesterol from the endocrine (hormone-producing-gland) system to use for brain function and repair, making it very hard to maintain hormonal balance.
The current consensus is that healthy people with normal cholesterol levels can and should get up to one-third of their daily calories from a mix of cholesterol, saturated fats, and roughly equivalent amounts of the two kinds of essential fatty acids: omega-3 (from fish and greens) and omega-6 (from seeds and seed oils).
Fish and pasture-fed livestock constitute ideal foods because, in addition to complete protein, they provide cholesterol, saturated fatty acids, and both the omega-3 and omega-6 families of unsaturated fatty acids.
Mixed messages from vegan doctors
We can see how vegan parents ignorant of nutrition might think that soy milk is adequate nutrition for infants.
To court disaster, all the parents of a baby like Crown Shakur would need to do is overlook or dismiss the first paragraph, and focus on the other two, all found on the web site of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)—a vegan advocacy organization driven by a philosophical, quasi-religious opposition to all animal-derived foods (PCRM Vegetarian Diets 2007):
- “Of course, an infant’s nutritional needs are best met by his or her mother’s breast milk. It’s nature’s way of boosting the baby’s immunity as well as his or her psychological well-being.”
- “Vegetarian diets provide excellent nutrition for all stages of childhood, from birth through adolescence.”
- “Very young children may need a slightly higher fat intake than adults do. Healthier fat sources include soybean products, avocados, and nut butters. Soy ‘hot dogs,’ peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, seasoned veggie burgers, and avocado chunks in salads, for example, are very well accepted.”
Left unsaid in the first paragraph is the fact that many vegan mothers have difficulty producing adequate milk. And their milk is often low in omega-3 DHA, which is an otherwise normal constituent of breast milk, needed to ensure optimal brain and eye development.
And these vegan doctors seem unwilling to admit that you don’t need to be a vegan to gain the documented benefits of plant foods. Even the US government, not known as a cutting edge nutrition advocate, urges Americans to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
Vegan mothers may have difficulty producing enough breast milk of good nutritional quality.
In a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, vegan diets are so low in cholesterol, saturated fatty acids, and essential omega-3 fatty acids that nursing women’s bodies can’t provide enough of these nutrients to fill their own needs and build ample amounts of well-rounded breast milk at the same time.
The destruction of the infant boy and the downfall of his parents were caused by a tragic blend of arrogance and willful ignorance: a lethal mix encouraged by distortions of nutrition science proffered by PCRM and others.
(See our accompanying article "Vegan Docs Offer Bogus Analysis" on the absurd claim issued recently by the vegan doctors who run Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who now claim there’s no proof that fish is good for heart health.)
The “bad rap” on animal fats
In Real Food: What to Eat and Why, Nina Planck explains how meats, dairy, and other traditional foods became blamed for heart disease, and details the bad science behind this bad rap.
Her scientifically sound arguments have their roots in the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, who, starting in the 1930’s, documented excellent health among traditional peoples who ate diets modern physicians would consider too high in animal fats. While Dr. Price found no one traditional diet was superior to the rest, he noted that all were based on meat, milk, or fish, and that none were vegan.
However, modern, factory-farmed meats and dairy are nutritionally different from the animals eaten in traditional rural societies.
Today’s commercial animal foods come from factory-farmed livestock raised on omega-6-rich grains instead of omega-3-rich pasture. This contributes to the fatty acid intake imbalance common to American diets, which are far too high in pro-inflammatory omega-6s: an imbalance that constitutes a clear risk factor for cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative conditions with inflammatory components.
This is why Nina Planck and other informed advocates of traditional diets advise people to choose meats and dairy products from pasture-fed animals, whose meat and milk are much higher in omega-3s and much lower in omega-6s, compared with their factory-farmed counterparts. Unfortunately, pasture-based meats and dairy foods are no longer widely available. (For pasture-raised beef, visit our friends at US Wellness Meats.)
Ms. Planck also provides compelling evidence that certain common elements of modern diets—sugars, trans omega-6 fats, and omega-6-rich vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, etc.)—are the leading villains in heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and obesity.
Vegan diets: the moral argument
Vegans often cite the example of India as offering support for the nutritional adequacy and practicality of vegan diets.
But in reality, there are few true vegans in India. While many rural Indians are lacto-ovo vegetarians, this is mostly because of the high cost of meat and livestock.
This writer once spent four months traveling throughout India, as a lacto-ovo vegetarian vigilant to avoid meat or poultry in meals. I saw meats, poultry, eggs and milk consumed widely as a matter of course. Hindus reject beef and Muslims reject pork, but most members of both groups will gladly eat one another’s taboo animal foods when they can afford to.
Even most members of India’s ancient, vanishing Jain sect—some of whom who wear face masks to avoid breathing in and there by killing insects—often eat milk and eggs.
As to the moral argument—that unnecessary killing of animals is a worthy goal—the rightness of this stance hinges in large part on one’s definition of “unnecessary”.
Zealots like the vegan doctors who run Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) often engage in distortions of the available evidence in order to defend their ideology-driven dietary dogma (See “Bad science in defense of dietary ideology”, below).
Sustainable agriculture: a healthy mix of crops and livestock
We are well aware of the sound environmental arguments against diets heavily reliant on meat raised on grains, articulated in Frances Moore Lappé’s groundbreaking 1971 bestseller, Diet for a Small Planet.
Ms Lappé went on to found the Small Planet Institute, which advocates time-tested models of sustainability, but does not promote vegan diets as a panacea for world poverty and hunger.
In fact, small, self-sustaining livestock-crop farms have been highly successful models for agricultural and societal sustainability since before the dawn of civilization. The families that have worked such farms over the millennia rely on the synergies created when you raise animals and crops together.
Livestock are valued for their milk and meat, which provide the ample protein and fat-soluble nutrients that physically active humans of all ages need to thrive. And, critically, animals on such traditional, “holistic” family farms also provide fertilizer to enrich the soil.
Legitimate concerns about agricultural sustainability provide no credible rationale for the alleged societal benefits of vegan diets. In fact, the contrary is true: sustainable agriculture relies on raising animals and crops together.
This time-tested truth explains why Heifer International—a charity that provides livestock to poor Third-World families—has been so successful in raising people out of dire poverty.
In our opinion, consumption of meats, fish, and animal products only becomes morally questionable when animals are raised under confined, factory-like conditions for weeks or months on end, and/or slaughtered inhumanely.
Anyone who’s spent time on a small family farm, where animals are pasture fed and relatively free to roam, knows that they lead pretty happy lives. And wild salmon, which are typically caught in sustainable fisheries near the end of their life-cycle, spend their entire lives as nature intended.
In her new non-fiction book about a year spent living off only food raised by her family or local farms – titled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – novelist Barbara Kingsolver points out certain hypocrisy in vegans’ anti-animal-food stance.
Pointing out that vegans are complicit in the killing of the insects and field animals that inevitably fall to the harvesting process, Ms. Kingsolver writes, “You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened, or you can look it in the eye and know it.”
Bad science in defense of dietary ideology
Among the distortions offered up by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on their web site is a selective, highly misleading presentation of the evidence regarding plant and animal forms of omega-3 fatty acids, and utterly baseless attacks on the purity and safety of fish oil.
The online PCRM guidance concerning essential fatty acids notes that omega-3s are essential for humans, but fails to admit that the short-chain, plant-derived form of omega-3s advocated there is nearly useless to the body, except as raw material from which to create the long-chain “marine” omega-3s (EPA and DHA) needed for human cell membranes, which are abundant only in fish and in algae (single- or multi-celled aquatic plants).
In addition to being essential to cell membrane structure and function, the long-chain marine omega-3s in fish oil are used to make essential immune-system messenger molecules called eicosanoids.
Nor does the PCRM guide acknowledge that the human body only converts five to 15 percent of plant-form omega-3s into the essential animal forms needed by our cells and immune systems, and simply burns almost all of the rest as fuel or stores it as body fat.
The PCRM fact sheet advises that vegans can get DHA—the most important omega-3 for infants and pregnant or nursing women, thanks to its key role in brain and eye development—via supplements derived from algae.
And the PCRM site fails to mention that the DHA natural to breast milk is one reason why mother’s milk is the best nutrition for infants.
The vegan doctors at PCRM also fail to disclose that there is another valuable marine omega-3 called EPA, which algae-based omega-3 supplements do not provide.
The anti-inflammatory effects of EPA exceed those of DHA, and many clinical trials showing cardiac or arthritis benefit from marine omega-3s used only EPA, or fish oil supplements dominated by EPA.
For a prime example of distortions by vegan “scientists”, see our accompanying article on the PCRM’s analysis of a group of diabetics, which claims to find no evidence that fish aids heart health. (We place “scientists” between quote marks because the term implies a degree of intellectual honesty sadly lacking from their study.)
As Andrew Weil, M.D. once wrote about his personal decision to stop being a vegetarian, “I’m a big fan of salmon… In fact, I gave up being a vegetarian because I didn’t want to miss out on this fish, with its great flavor and health benefits.”
We hope that you will forward this article to any vegan you might know… especially people eating entirely vegan diets who may become parents.
It makes good sense for pregnant or nursing vegan women to take flax or (preferably) fish oil supplements or to eat wild salmon or other safe fish sources of long-chain omega-3s, to ensure that their babies get enough DHA for optimal brain and eye development.
Vegan parents are free to follow their own compass, but should consider giving their developmentally fragile infants some fish oil and/or pureed wild salmon, which is an excellent source of omega-3s, protein, and vitamin D. And wild salmon roe is among the most potent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and has long been a staple of the Pacific indigenous infant diet.
(Our Frequently Asked Questions page presents expert guidance on proper intake of fish oil for infants, from respected, bestselling pediatrician William Sears, M.D.)
Any fish fed to infants ready for non-solid foods should meet five key criteria:
- Free of harmful levels of contaminants*
- Previously frozen
- Thoroughly cooked (not necessary with salmon roe)
- Pureed into mush.
As it happens, the truly minuscule levels of mercury and organic toxins in wild Alaska salmon rank among the lowest of any fish in the sea, so they pass the first three tests with flying colors... parents need only address the last two points.
As soon as children are old enough to eat solid foods, they can safely eat boneless fish that pass the first three tests.
In conclusion, we have no beef at all with most vegans (pardon the pun). But we do deplore distortion in the service of ideologically driven dietary dogmas.
- Planck N. Death by Veganism. The New York Times, May 21, 2007.
- Planck N. What's New Here: vegan tragedy - NYT op-ed. Accessed online May 27, 2007 at http://www.ninaplanck.com.
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Essential Fatty Acids. Accessed online May 27, 2007 at http://www.pcrm.org/health/prevmed/ess_fat_acids.html
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right from the Start. Accessed online May 26, 2007 at http://www.pcrm.org/health/veginfo/veg_diets_for_children.html
- Gale CR, Deary IJ, Schoon I, Batty GD. IQ in childhood and vegetarianism in adulthood: 1970 British cohort study. BMJ. 2007 Feb 3;334(7587):245. Epub 2006 Dec 15.