The New York Times, Nina Planck, and Safety of Vegan Diets
Last week brought more shoddy coverage of vegan diets from The New York Times. This time, it was a debate about the safety of veganism. And it didn’t occur to the Times to solicit opinions from anyone with actual expertise in vegan nutrition.
At the center of the discussion was food writer and farmer’s market expert Nina Planck, who excels at making sweeping, unsupported observations about nutrition. She is woefully uninformed and spectacularly unconcerned about her lack of knowledge and credentials.
Planck believes that we have “extraordinary needs for nutrients not found in plants,” –including vitamins A and D, omega-3 fats, and carnitine–which translates to a need for what she refers to as “synthetic supplements.” I imagine that in referring to these supplements as “synthetic,” she’s hoping to convince us that they’re somehow inferior to the “real nutrients” found in food.
But let’s look at that. Vegan sources of the long chain omega-3 fats DHA and EPA aren’t synthetic; they’re derived directly from microalgae. The DHA in fish ultimately comes from exactly the same source.
It’s the same with vitamin B12. Whether it ends up in a pill or a pork chop, it was produced by bacteria. The big difference is that the B12 in pills isn’t bound to protein, which turns out to be a good thing for bioavailability. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends vitamin B12 supplements for all people over the age of 50 since, in older people, B12 is better absorbed from pills than from animal foods. So much for the “supplements aren’t as good as food” argument.
I’ve written before about animal products versus plants for vitamins D and A. Vitamin D is very poorly supplied by foods and although you could technically get enough from fish, it’s not realistic or sustainable to do so. As a result, all of us, vegan and meat-eater alike, have to depend on fortified foods (the vitamin D added to cow’s milk is no more “natural” than the vitamin D in almond milk) or sun exposure or supplements. Vitamin D is an issue for everyone, not just vegans.
And since Americans get between a quarter and a third of their vitamin A from plant foods, they’d be in trouble if plant sources weren’t effective. The Institute of Medicine affirms that vitamin A needs can be met completely from plant foods. (But hey—these are just the world’s leading vitamin A researchers, so you can’t really expect them to know as much as a farmers’ market expert!)
Planck’s big concern is about babies and children, though, and she says that the breast milk of vegetarian women is dramatically lower in DHA than that of omnivores and also doesn’t provide adequate carnitine. Carnitine is an amino acid, but not an essential one since humans can manufacture it. There is no reason to think that vegan or vegetarian women would produce breast milk that is low in carnitine.
Some research shows that milk of vegetarian women is lower in DHA, though, which is not surprising. But it’s higher than what has been provided by the infant formulas that have nourished generations of healthy babies. And, breastfeeding vegetarian mothers can easily raise DHA levels of their milk with supplements.
Planck says “The most risky period for vegan children is weaning. Growing babies who are leaving the breast need complete protein, omega-3 fats, iron, calcium and zinc. Compared with meat, fish, eggs and dairy, plants are inferior sources of every one.”
Yes, weaning is a critical period in infant feeding, and yes some animal foods do contain more protein, omega-3 fats, iron, calcium, and zinc. But does it matter? We don’t need “as much as possible” of every nutrient; we just need enough. So, if plant foods can provide enough, who cares whether some animal products have more?
If she wants to make the case that it’s easier to meet needs for some of these nutrients with animal foods, I can’t argue with that. That doesn’t mean that vegan kids can’t or don’t get enough. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have great data on the nutrient intake of vegan children. But we do know that vegan diets can indeed meet the nutritional needs of children. And it’s not as though omnivore children never have nutrient deficiencies. In fact, excessive consumption of cow’s milk places toddlers at risk for iron deficiency anemia. Many U.S. children also don’t consume enough calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, folate, or vitamins A, C and E.
There is so much misinformation and confusion wrapped up in Planck’s two sentences about soy, that I’m not entirely sure how to decipher them. She says: “Soy protein is not good for a baby’s first food for the same reason that soy formula is not good for newborns. It’s a poor source of calcium, iron and zinc — and much too high in estrogen. It also lacks adequate methionine which babies and children need to grow properly.”
First, who says soy formula isn’t good for newborns? Babies grow and develop just fine on soy formula which has been around for nearly 100 years. And it’s fortified with all of the things—calcium, iron, zinc, methionine (and carnitine)—that Planck believes is missing from it.
As for soy protein as a “first food,” does she mean a first solid food? I’m not sure whether she’s confused or is just trying to confuse, because nobody recommends tofu or other soy products as a first solid food for young infants. First solids are nearly always enriched cereals. And as babies are weaned, they are introduced to a mixed diet of grains, legumes and veggies, making concerns about individual amino acids irrelevant.
Her information on vitamin B12 seems to come exclusively from an online article by a licensed acupuncturist who says that “studies consistently show that up to 50 percent of long-term vegetarians and 80 percent of vegans are deficient in B12.” The “studies that consistently show” this turn out to be one study of 66 vegetarians and 29 vegans in Germany and the Netherlands. Other research doesn’t come close to confirming those percentages. The fact is that vegans who don’t supplement with B12 run the risk of deficiency. Those who take a supplement don’t.
There’s nothing new here. Nina Planck doesn’t like vegan diets and she doesn’t know nutrition science. That’s always a dangerous combination. The Nina Plancks of the world can’t be stopped from writing what they like, but it’s deplorable that the New York Times would provide them with a platform.
Edited to add: Thank you to Dr. Reed Mangels, author of The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book for giving me feedback on this post before I published it. Reed is THE expert on vegan nutrition for children and pregnant women.