An edited version of this op-ed was printed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 11, 2007
It was a horrific crime. Last month in Atlanta, two parents were convicted of intentionally starving their six-week-old child to death. As part of their defense, the parents of Crown Shakur claimed that they are vegan, meaning that they do not consume meat, dairy, or other animal products. Their conviction has brought international attention to vegan childrearing.
As a nutritionist who testified as an expert witness for the prosecution in this trial, I want to clear up some disturbing misunderstandings about this case. Vegan diets are not only safe for babies; they’re healthier than ones based on animal products.
Unfortunately, not everyone talking about Crown’s death is getting the facts right. Some are even misusing this tragic and confusing case to question the ethics and adequacy of vegan nutrition during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, and childhood.
Yet one thing about Crown’s death is very clear. He was not killed by a vegan diet. As the autopsy report stated, Crown died of complications of starvation. I was in the courtroom when the judge and jury were shown photographs of Crown right after he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The infant was literally skin and bones. His parents had fed him the wrong food for an infant—soymilk and apple juice. But the real problem was that he was not given enough food of any sort.
The other reason Crown died was that his parents did not seek medical care or even advice from a relative when it was clearly warranted. Astonishingly, the father stated under oath that he didn’t know anything was wrong with Crown until right before he and the infant’s mother drove him to the hospital. That was the child’s first visit to any kind of health care practitioner.
Parents have a legal and moral responsibility to protect their children and keep them well-fed. And doctors and nutritionists agree that the best food for infants is mother’s breast milk. The only viable alternative for the first six months of life is infant formula. Many nutrition experts recommend soy-based formulas, which are plant-based.
Interestingly, the breast milk of vegan mothers has been shown to contain significantly lower levels of environmental contaminants, such as pesticides, dioxins, and bovine growth hormone, than the breast milk of meat-eating mothers.
First weaning foods, which should generally be introduced around six months of life, are nearly always foods from plant sources—mashed cooked vegetables, mashed fruit, or rice-cereal thinned with breast milk or formula if need be.
A few months later, more protein-dense foods can be offered. Good choices include mashed beans, lentils, and peas. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cow’s milk is not recommended at all during the first year or so of life. Its consumption increases the risk of diabetes.
According to the American Dietetics Association, there is no need to introduce any meats, eggs, or dairy products into an infant, toddler, or child’s diet. Well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets not only provide all the nutrients necessary to support growth, they also promote good health in childhood and start disease prevention early.
Just think about the advantages of raising a child on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Limiting or avoiding consumption of fish sticks and tuna sandwiches reduces mercury consumption and the resulting risk of cognitive and behavioral problems. Choosing non-dairy milks such as rice, soy, or oat milk significantly lowers consumption of saturated fat and growth hormones given to cows to increase milk production. Substituting vegan sausage for bacon or pork sausage increases healthy fiber and sidesteps fattening and artery-clogging animal fats.
That all sounds pretty darn responsible to me.
How else can we responsibly promote the health of children? We can embrace the efforts of parents who are finding creative ways to provide healthy, nutrient-rich foods to their children. We can support government policies that limit foods from animal sources and promote the consumption of whole or less processed foods, especially fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. And we can demand that our medical system provide high-quality care to everyone, including people choosing a vegan lifestyle.
Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is a senior nutrition scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and an assistant professor of health and wellness at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She is also the author of
Healthy Eating for Life for Children
Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right from the Start
Healthy Diets at All Stages of Life
Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets