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Updated 08 October 2015

Do vegan diets endanger child health?

A vegan mother who only breastfed her 11-month-old is being charged with the death of her daughter after she died of vitamin A and B12 deficiencies.

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The French Press recently published a shocking report entitled "French vegans in dock over baby's death" (AFP, 2011).

It transpired, that the parents, Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou, had literally starved their child to death because of their adherence to a vegan diet. At the age of 11 months, the only sustenance that Baby Louise received, was her mother's milk. An autopsy showed that Louise died of vitamin A and B12 deficiencies, which would have made her susceptible to infections. It is believed that these deficiencies were caused by deficiencies in her mother's milk because of the mother's vegan diet.

What went wrong?

I can imagine that most readers are puzzled that an infant receiving mother’s milk could have suffer such deprivations. After all, the nutrition fraternity are always encouraging all women, even those infected with HIV, to breastfeed their infants for as long as possible and we are all familiar with the injunction that ‘Breast is Best!’

Two things went wrong in this tragic case:

1) The mother's breastmilk was deficient in vital nutrients

The results of the autopsy revealed that the child was suffering from vitamin A and vitamin B12 deficiencies. A vegan diet not only prohibits adherents to eat any foods of animal origin, but also restricts the plant foods that can be eaten. In some cases, strict vegans eat only brown rice and certain vegetables. It is evident that the mother probably did not eat any vegetables rich in beta-carotene, because if she had eaten pumpkin, butternut, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes and other sources of beta-carotene her body would have converted the beta-carotene into vitamin A and her milk would not have been deficient in this important vitamin.

If the mother had eaten eggs, milk and dairy products (ovo-lacto-vegetarian), then she would have ingested high quality protein (growth of muscle tissue), calcium (development of strong bones and teeth), iron (prevention of iron-deficiency anaemia), vitamin B12 (prevention of vitamin B12-deficiency anaemia), and zinc (to boost immunity).

2) The baby did not receive any additional foods

Even the most ardent supporters of breastfeeding recommend that young children should be introduced to weaning foods at the age of 6 months. But Baby Louise was still receiving her mother's deficient breastmilk at the age of 11 months.

I have written a number of articles about how to introduce weaning foods at 6 months. Baby porridges, a variety of cooked, pureed vegetables, peeled and canned or cooked, pureed fruit, diluted fruit juice and soft boiled egg are good choices for weaning foods.

Breast milk does not contain sufficient iron to meet the needs of infants older than 6 months. Cow's milk on the other hand causes microscopic bleeding in the infant digestive tract leading to iron losses, which is one of the reasons why cow's milk is not regarded as ideal for children under the age of one year. Goat's milk, which so often is used for allergic babies, is deficient in folic acid.

Therefore, foods that are good sources of iron, zinc, and B vitamins (e.g. folic acid) need to be added to a child’s diet at the age of 6 months. Examples of such foods are iron-enriched baby cereals, pureed meat, chicken, liver and other organ meats, fish, dry, cooked and pureed beans, peas, lentils or soya, and egg yolk. Iron supplements can also be used for infants after the age of 6 months who drink cow’s or goat’s milk instead of infant formula.

If Baby Louise had been given such weaning foods, she would not have developed protein-energy malnutrition and vitamin A and B12 deficiencies.

This child’s death was, therefore, caused by ignorance and rigid adherence to a diet that in many cases does not support health in adults, much less in actively growing infants.

According to the newspaper report, Louise’s parents have been charged with “neglect or food deprivation followed by death”. If they are convicted, they face jail sentences of up to 30 years.

International child rights

According to resolutions taken at international conferences held in Rio, Vienna, Cairo, Copenhagen, Beijing and other centres, every woman, man, youth and child has “the right to be free from hunger and malnutrition” (PDHRE, 2011). 

It is a universal right that every human being on this planet should have access to “the minimum essential food which is sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe” (HREA, 2011).

Parents are responsible for providing their children with nutritionally adequate and safe food until the age of 18 years. In other words, even if a parent has decided to follow a diet that may be inadequate and lacking in vital nutrients, it is that parent’s task to provide his or her children with the nutrients they require for adequate growth and health.

Parents who decide to become vegans or even very strict vegetarians, need to realise that the diet they have selected is not adequate and does not contain all the nutrients essential for infants or young children. These parents then need to make provision for the child to receive a well balanced diet which contains foods from all the food groups, such as an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet, even if such a diet differs from their own. When the child has stopped growing (around the age of 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys), the young adult can decide for him- or herself what type of diet he or she wishes to follow.

So to answer our initial question if vegan diets endanger child health, the case of Baby Louise clearly indicates that in this case a vegan diet not only posed a risk to the health of the child in question, but that it proved fatal to her.


Diet tips for pregnant vegetarians

References:

(AFP, 2011. French vegans in dock over baby’s death. www.france24.com/en/ 20110329-french-vegans-dock-over-babys-death; HREA (2011). Food and water. Human Rights Education Association. www.hrea.org/index.php?doc_id=404; PDHRE (2011). The human right to adequate food. The People’s Movement for Human Rights Education. www.pdhre.org/rights/food.html )

This article prompted a Response from the South African Vegan Society. Read it here.

 
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