For several days this week, Nina Planck's recent New York Times Op-Ed "Death by Veganism" rode high on the Times' most e-mailed and most blogged lists, stirring a plant-based shit storm across the nation. Planck uses the recent conviction of the parents of Crown Shakur, a baby who died of malnutrition at 6 weeks old, as a springboard for an anti-vegan polemic. The vegan parents, who had fed Crown a diet of primarily soy milk and apple juice, were recently convicted of murder, involuntary manslaughter and cruelty in Atlanta.
In no uncertain terms, Planck asserts that veganism killed the baby: "You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants." Noting the vegan diet's lack of vitamin B12, as well as "usable vitamins A and D" and minerals like calcium and zinc, she observes quite correctly that when "babies are deprived of all these nutrients, they will suffer from retarded growth, rickets and nerve damage." Fair enough, but as oodles of blog responses like this one have duly noted, vegan diets don't necessarily lead to these deficiencies, and there are certainly examples of omnivorous parents neglecting their children's nutrition.
Planck even goes after the vegan breast-feeding mother: "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." Both these statements are true, but their implication -- that vegan breast milk may endanger babies -- is far from an established medical fact. A review of the literature by the La Leche League suggests that the jury is out: No health organization currently recommends DHA supplements for nursing mothers and the one study on babies breast-fed by vegan mothers "found no evidence that maternal diets low in particular fatty acids (e.g., vegan diets) are deficient or pose problems for nursing infants."
What's most aggravating about the Times editorial is that it moves from the particular (infanticide, kooky vegan parents, completely malnourished child) to the general (any vegans may wind up killing their children) with little attention to nuance. After all, babies live on breast milk or formula (cow's-milk based or soy-based). Giving a newborn infant plain cow's milk or plain soy milk is bad news, too.
As an expert witness for the prosecution (whose letter to the editor the Times published) put it: "As the lead prosecutor in this case told the jury, this poor infant was not killed by a vegan diet. He was starved to death by parents who did not give him breast milk, soy-based infant formula or enough food of any kind."
I suppose the recipe shouldn't surprise us: Combine one baby death with equal parts dietary restriction and parental neglect and you've got an instant bestselling editorial. Who can resist a morsel like this? And Op-Eds allow the author a certain license to bloviate (yeah, yeah -- like blogs). But Planck seems to have moved beyond impassioned subjectivity and into figmentology. It's also worth noting that, like the vegans she critiques, Planck is a dietary zealot. In her book "Real Food: What to Eat and Why" she promotes meat, eggs, whole-fat dairy and the healthfulness of lard. Bring on the bacon!
Lest you finger me as one of those crusaders for the truth according to seitan, I should note that I am currently omnivorous, eating bacon (yesterday) and edamame (also yesterday) with no respect for theoretical kosherism that separates the soy lovers from the salami stuffers. Like Planck, I was once a vegetarian, and like her, I also fell off the vegetable truck before I got pregnant and began jonesing for steaks 24/7. But is this a reason to accuse other, less bloodthirsty parents of reckless child endangerment? When I see this sort of argument -- so often about topics like parenting and food, the luxurious minutiae of our self-conscious lives -- I can't help wondering about all the sublimated rage and energy expended on allergenic concerns and sniping about best parental practices. Then I flash on Freud's brilliant observation that we reserve our most virulent emotions for those who resemble us most, which seems to encapsulate so many of our current culture wars: "the narcissism of small differences."