From the Associated Press:

A vegan couple were sentenced Wednesday to life in prison for the death of their malnourished 6-week-old baby boy, who was fed a diet largely consisting of soy milk and apple juice.

I realize this is an extreme example, and these two were way out of the norm in their ignorance about vegan nutrition. I am not posting this to slam vegans. I’m just using it as an opportunity to give some unsolicited advice to any of you with children who are planning to go vegan: educate yourself thoroughly beforehand. Talk and listen to experienced, knowledgeable vegans first. Cross check what you learn against a licensed pediatrician to make sure you get enough non-meat protein in their diets to feed their rapidly growing, protein-hungry brains.

Update [2007-5-11 13:1:32 by biodiversivist]: My apologies all, for not looking into this story in greater depth. I’ve been too busy to check in on the blog and I see it has a pile of comments already. An infant can die of malnutrition even if fed large quantities of food that does not contain adequate nutrition, such as fruit juice, and that is what I mistakenly thought had happened in this case. I did not realize that the child had actually been fed small quantities in addition to being fed inadequate nutrition.

I overlooked the one short sentence in the entire article that should have clued me in: “The child died because he was not fed. Period.” The headline and subtitle, both crafted to sensationalize and maximize readership sucked me in. This was a generic case of child abuse and veganism had little to do with it. I have added more to this article below the fold and I’m sorry I didn’t get back to it sooner sparing several rants.

Accepting that this particular story was not an appropriate one to open this subject, the main point I still want to emphasize is that impoverished, poorly educated, parents make poor candidates for raising children on a vegan diet, which takes consistency, education, and effort to avoid compromising a growing child’s cognitive development. A diet somewhere between the extremes of fast food and veganism would be best for them, and certainly would be easier to pull off. Just as a traditional Inuit diet of blubber and meat is at one extreme, veganism is at the other. A vegan diet for children is doable, but appropriate safeguards must be taken.

Here is an article by a vegan giving advice on what to feed your vegan child. The editor prudently put a disclaimer at the end of the article to make sure readers get the complete picture. Such information should be a part of any article that suggests parents should raise children on a vegan diet.

This child may or may not have died had these parents provided large quantities of what they thought was a vegan diet, but there is no doubt that this child would have been impaired as were the infants of these two vegan parents in this case study (who did not go to court and did not make the headlines).

There is no hidden epidemic of malnourished vegan children in America, in part because only about half of a percent of American children are vegan and very few of them include America’s disadvantaged urban poor. But that could change if enough people get the idea that a good parent should provide a vegan diet and then not follow through on the education and discipline necessary for a positive outcome. Certainly few people would advocate that the poor in third world nations like Africa strive to raise their children on vegan diets. There is an epidemic of obese children, which suggests that stronger efforts should be taken to convince parents to provide better diets. The extreme of veganism is not only unnecessary to accomplish that but could also do more harm than good if pediatricians began promoting such a diet because a significant number of parents out there simply would not take, or even fully understand, the proper precautions.

I recall the time I was in an apartment helping out an impoverished couple with three children. They had been homeless and I had paid the first and last months rent to get them off the street into shelter again. As is quite common in that economic bracket, at least according to a pediatrician I know, different fathers had sired all three. The children were fending for themselves, as is also common in this bracket. Parents are often either off at work, or recovering from some form of substance abuse. I watched the three year old walk over to the refrigerator and open it. She dragged out a hunk of cheese and started munching down. I remember it because I was surprised that a child that young had learned to open a refrigerator. Had the only options for that child been fruits and vegetables she would have been at even greater risk from this intellectually impoverished environment. She is a teenager today and can barely read.

I have made this point before. Grist is stereotypically top heavy with contributors who were born with silver spoons in their mouths. They have been handed six figure educations at private colleges and will one day receive inheritances. However, missing from their education is an understanding of poverty. They have witnessed poverty, possibly lived temporarily in less than optimal apartments or neighborhoods, and can empathize with those permanently stuck in it, but they will never fully grasp its essence because they will never experience a life without hope of escaping it. Veganism is not a diet that should be promoted for the impoverished.