Omnivore - When veganism is the unhealthy choice

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when there was utterly no treatment for the disease, people tried all kinds of remedies. One of them was the macrobiotic diet, comprised mainly of grains and vegetables.

The diet was disastrous for most. Since it is so low-calorie, it actually contributed to the wasting that is part of the disease. Most people I knew abandoned it at their doctors' insistence.

The vegan diet, although less restrictive than macrobiotics, also poses problems. Two vegan parents were convicted of murder here recently when their infant son died after being fed mainly soy milk and apple juice.

The New York Times (subscription-only) published a column, "Death by Veganism," Monday, May 21. Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why, explains the dangers of a vegan diet for babies and adults. She notes:

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 fact remains, though, that 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.

A vegan diet may lack vitamin B12, found only in animal foods; usable vitamins A and D, found in meat, fish, eggs and butter; and necessary minerals like calcium and zinc. When babies are deprived of all these nutrients, they will suffer from retarded growth, rickets and nerve damage.

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