Strict Vegan Diets May Be Dangerous, Especially For Expectant Mothers and Children
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Reprinted from Chet Day's Health and Beyond Weekly Newsletter
By Chet Day
July 14, 2000
Let me say before we jump into the heart of this matter that I believe most people who claim to do well long-term on vegan diets do so because they don't follow their diets strictly. I believe those who thrive on vegan diets occasionally consume animal foods containing essential nutritive factors. I have come to this conclusion based on eight years of extensive postal and e-mail correspondence sent to me by individuals who have tried to live on various vegan programs, everything from 100% raw food to fruitarianism to Natural Hygiene to the Hallelujah Diet to Arnold Ehret's Mucusless Diet.
Although I'm unaware of any long-term follow-up studies, anecdotal evidence for strict vegan diets suggest they do an excellent job for many people who have used them to overcome major health challenges. There is no question that many people with terrible health problems have received relief by using a raw foods diet or a Natural Hygiene diet or the Hallelujah Diet.
Like any other program, however, some of the people following these diets have had their health problems return. And, of course, some have also died, as is true of all health programs and all medical procedures. Unfortunately, with most well- publicized diet programs, we rarely hear negative reports involving disappointments and that has always bothered me because it shades the truth. Additionally, people who find their health restored by a vegan diet usually believe they've now found the only way to eat. This can be a dangerous assumption long-term.
Without further preliminaries, let me reveal why I now believe vegan diets may be dangerous in the long-term for those who actually follow them strictly and especially so for expectant mothers and children.
My thoughts on this topic came together for me recently when I received the Back to the Garden newsletter that featured two articles about mothers and babies following the Hallelujah Diet. The articles lead readers to the conclusion, on the basis of perhaps a half dozen "testimonies," that a restrictive, low- calorie, low-fat vegan diet is ideal for expectant mothers as well as for nursing mothers and their babies and children.
Since some people still mistakenly associate my name with the Hallelujah Diet, in good conscience I must make it crystal clear that I consider strict adherence to the Hallelujah Diet, as well as any other strict vegan diet, dangerous for expectant mothers as well as for nursing moms and babies and children. I also now consider strict vegan diets to be potentially deficient for teenagers who burn a lot of calories each day and whose growing bones and bodies still require a full spectrum of nutrients. This may be true for adults, as well, if they follow a vegan diet strictly for a year or two or more.
I will write about the Hallelujah Diet below because it is the vegan diet most often still associated with my name, but what I have to say holds true for all diets that prohibit eating all animal foods.
Individuals on the Hallelujah Diet are encouraged to eat no meat, no white flour, no dairy, no sugar, and no salt. They are told to drink carrot juice (at least 16 ounces a day) and their water should be distilled, though recently a filtered and ozonated water was also approved as a viable alternative. The diet calls for no solid food other than fruit or salad before the evening meal, which consists of a large salad followed by cooked, vegetarian fare. The diet also includes a tablespoon of a blended oil each day and a recently-added B12 supplement, as well as a super green drink three times a day.
Although the Hallelujah Diet helps many adults with health or weight challenges, according to the short-term testimonies published in their print and e-mail newsletters, I know from correspondence and my own unedited discussion list that many people are not able to stay on the program for more than a few weeks or months. For those who do follow it strictly, I believe this diet may cause serious problems long-term, particularly for mothers, babies, and children, and most especially in neurological and skeletal development of infants and children.
To clarify my position, let me list the major areas where I agree and disagree with the Hallelujah Diet.
Regarding dietary matters, I believe most people can attain a high level of health from eating a predominantly plant-based, uncooked, whole food diet. I agree that sugar and white flour and processed foods with additives contribute to disease. I agree that having fresh vegetable juice each day is a wise thing to do. I do think a super green drink is an excellent supporter of health. I agree that one also needs a source of essential fatty acids each day. And if one is a vegan, I agree that B12 supplementation is an absolute must, as Hallelujah Acres recently recommended.
Now, here's where I part company with the Hallelujah Diet.
Water I think it's important to drink plenty of pure water each day and I personally try to follow the idea that says it's healthy to consume eight eight-ounce glasses of pure water for every 24 hours. Hallelujah Acres says to consume liquid from juices. Unless you are drinking 64-ounces of juice a day, I question whether you are fully hydrated. I also don't think the body treats water the same as it treats juice.
Salt Although I abstained from all forms of salt for several years, I no longer believe it's healthy to avoid salt for long periods. I now use Celtic sea salt almost every day and am convinced the human body must have minimally processed sea salt for many bodily functions. Modern medicine, as it often does, seems to be coming full circle on the salt question, and now studies reveal that consumption of some salt may be necessary for long-term health. For current thinking on the salt issue, see "Dietary salt reduction in hypertension -- what is the evidence and why is it still controversial?" in Prog Cardiovasc Dis 1999 Jul-Aug; 42(1):23-38.
My present understanding is that good health involves a balance of salt and potassium. Although illnesses do develop from too much salt -- and most people on the standard American diet use far too much highly-processed, supermarket salt -- evidence mounts that long-term avoidance of salt can also be detrimental,
If you'd like interesting reading on the value of using Celtic sea salt, check out the excellent web site by clicking here.
While we're on the topic of salt, let me repeat what I've written many times before: I consider Bragg Liquid Aminos a poor salt substitute since it is made from soybeans, a food stuff currently receiving a lot of bad press in the natural health field. Many use the Bragg product to improve the flavor of their meals. I suggest Celtic sea salt with do the same thing without the possible dangers of a soy-based product.
Carrot Juice Instead of drinking straight carrot juice, which is extremely high on the glycemic index and thus dangerous for diabetics, candida sufferers, and those with hypo or hyperglycemia, I now prefer vegetable juices with no more than 1/4 carrot juice as the base. When I juice these days, my juice is predominantly composed of leafy greens, celery, zucchini, bok choy, and so on. I continue to believe that juicing is an excellent thing to do for the serious health seeker, and I just wish most people had enough time to do it more often. My current understanding of juicing is that it works best when there's a balance of variously-colored vegetables in the juice.
Animal Foods I now think it's important for most people, especially individuals like me who zealously followed strict vegan diets for several years, to eat some "clean" and minimally processed animal foods as their body needs point out to them.
I currently eat health food store butter and free-range eggs as well as salmon and tuna. I don't drink milk, though I will occasionally have some organic, raw milk cheese or yogurt made from cows that are pasture fed and not injected with antibiotics and hormones. I try to avoid all supermarket dairy products. My wife, who doesn't tolerate fish, prefers some health food store beef. I eat these animal foods when my body tells me I need them. I'll go for weeks without an egg, and suddenly I'll know by a strong craving that I need some eggs, so I'll eat them until that feeling goes away. Ditto for fish. Ditto for cheese.
The ovo-lacto vegetarian diet (plants and eggs and dairy) is an excellent choice for those who wish to avoid eating animal flesh.
If they aren't comfort-food related and generated for psychological or stress-based reasons, food cravings often suggest your diet isn't working for you. Listen to your body. It knows what it's talking about. Even cravings for junk food may well be telling you that you're not getting enough concentrated foods, or some other needed factor, in your diet.
Before some pundit misinterprets or tries to twist what I'm suggesting, I do not urge you to run down to the local Dairy Queen when you suddenly crave ice cream. Instead, entertain the possibility that your body needs some animal fat to help utilize fat-soluble vitamins and other factors not present in strict vegan diets.
If you want a Big Mac, your body's probably telling you it needs some meat. Get the best quality meat you can find at a health food store and eat it and enjoy it. Guilt contributes nothing to human health.
Philosophically, I continue to believe that a predominantly plant-based and uncooked diet is the best thing for the long- term health of most people. Personally, I would estimate somewhere between 5% and 10% of my current diet also includes animal foods. Animal foods now probably compose closer to 20% of the diet of my wife and sons, and they eat more cooked foods to meet their energy requirements. As I work to lose the extra weight I've put on the past year or so from over-eating on carbohydrates and dried fruits and grains, and, yes, plenty of oatmeal-raisin cookies, I find that animal foods satisfy my appetite much more than vegan choices.
B12 and Other Deficiencies To return to my main reason for now publicly rejecting the Natural Hygiene, Hallelujah Diet, and other vegan programs that I once praised so highly, I do so because I find deeply disturbing the suggestion in the most recent Back to the Garden that the Hallelujah Diet is ideal for expectant mothers and children. I was especially concerned because the Hallelujah Acres' researcher, Michael Donaldson, a Cornell Ph.D., pointed out in the same issue in his excellent B12 article: "Our study revealed early signs of vitamin B12 deficiency in 26 of the 54 people tested, after following the Hallelujah Diet for as little as two to four years."
Dr. Donaldson includes a list of all major sources of B12 in a vegan diet and observes, "We see then that dietary vegan sources of vitamin B12 are very sparse since plant foods do not contain vitamin B12 in appreciable amounts." He concludes that all vegans must take a B12 supplement.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, Dr. Donaldson's important conclusions about B12 deficiencies and how they can affect infants weren't even mentioned in the two articles aimed at mothers and babies, a particularly vulnerable group. Here's what Dr. Donaldson reported, three sentences that should have been included in both articles about expectant mothers:
"Based on the published studies and our results, adequate vitamin B12 status of vegans cannot be taken for granted. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants, and small children are particularly vulnerable to B12 shortages. Ensuring adequate B12 is critical for normal neurological development and maintenance, with shortages resulting in permanent damage."
As an editor, I know many readers can be expected to read only certain articles in a publication. As an editor, I would have felt obligated to highlight these critical three sentences in a sidebar box in each of the two articles aimed directly at expectant mothers so there would be no chance that a mom might miss the fact that she HAS to supplement with B12 if she's going to follow the Hallelujah Diet as recommended and not risk causing irreparable problems for her baby.
In my opinion, a vegetarian-sourced addition of B12 supplementation may not solve all problems of deficiency on a vegan diet, especially for mothers, babies, children, and growing teenagers. With additional reading and corresponding on my part this past year and a half, I now believe that Vitamin D, zinc, iron, and calcium -- and probably others that haven't yet been identified -- can and do occur in strict vegans.
I applaud Dr. Donaldson for his important work, work that has now scientifically confirmed for the vegan world flaws that were anecdotally observed in the 1950s in the Natural Hygiene world by Dr. Christopher Gian-Cursio when many of his long-term patients and second and third generation vegan children did not thrive.
Gian-Cursio attributed the problems to deficiencies in Vitamin B12. Cursio's student, Dr. Stanley S. Bass, later discovered that a vegan diet was also often deficient in Vitamin D. Apparently sunshine is not enough. Cursio's patients and their children only regained their health when they added egg yolks and raw milk cheese to their diet, as well as blended salads -- the Natural Hygiene equivalent of daily juicing. You must read this important information in its entirety and you can do so by clicking here.
While reading the above, be sure to take particular note of the information regarding researcher Dr. Weston Price, who traveled the world in search of an ideal diet.
You can also learn a lot from long-term vegan Dr. Stanley S. Bass, who is now a convincing advocate for the inclusion of animal foods, at his web site. Other long-term vegans whose health and energy levels went downhill reveal what they've learned at the excellent Beyond Vegetarianism web site.
While researching the B12 topic on Medline, I was especially troubled by an article entitled "Persistence of neurological damage induced by dietary vitamin B-12 deficiency in infancy" which was published in Arch Dis Child 1997 Aug;77(2):137-9. The abstract read, "A case is reported of a 14 month old boy with severe dietary vitamin B-12 deficiency caused by his mother's vegan diet. Clinical, electroencephalography (EEG), and haematological findings are described. Cranial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed severe frontal and frontoparietal cranial atrophy. Vitamin B-12 supplements led to a rapid improvement of haematological and neurological symptoms. Serum vitamin B-12 and urinary methylmalonate excretion were normal 10 days after treatment began. After six weeks, EEG was normal and cranial MRI after 10 weeks showed complete disappearance of all structural abnormalities. Cognitive and language development, however, remained seriously retarded at the age of 2 years. It is concluded that infantile vitamin B-12 deficiency induced by maternal vegan diets may cause lasting neurodisability even though vitamin B-12 supplementation leads to rapid resolution of cerebral atrophy and electroencephalographic abnormality."
Please note the terribly important last two sentences: "Cognitive and language development, however, remained seriously retarded at the age of 2 years. It is concluded that infantile vitamin B-12 deficiency induced by maternal vegan diets may cause lasting neurodisability even though vitamin B-12 supplementation leads to rapid resolution of cerebral atrophy and electroencephalographic abnormality."
In other words, some B12 deficiency damage can not be reversed in the crucial areas of neurological development and functioning.
In closing this section, I'd like to quote from The Weston A. Price Foundation web site, a site devoted to traditional diets that have a great deal to teach modern health seekers:
"The wisdom of primitive peoples is vastly superior to our own in this regard, in that a common practice among isolated groups is the feeding of special foods to both men and women for a period of time before conception occurs. Dr. Weston Price's studies revealed that these foods -- including organ meats, fish heads, fish eggs, shell fish, insects and animal fats -- were rich in fat-soluble vitamins A and D as well as macro and trace minerals. Couples planning to have children should eat liberally of organic liver and other organ meats, fish eggs and other seafood, eggs and the best quality butter, cream and fermented milk products they can obtain for at least six months before conception. A daily cod liver oil supplement is also advised. Organic meats, vegetables, grains and legumes should round out the diet, with a special emphasis on the leafy green vegetables rich in folic acid, which is necessary for the prevention of birth defects like spinal bifida." (Click here to read the complete article.)
Concluding Observations Unfortunately, rather than reading hundreds of studies on veganism and vegetarianism at Medline to get a balanced view, many health seekers all-too-often wed themselves to ideas about diet that they then want to remain loyal to for the rest of their lives, even when their own health begins to suffer. I know this because I've been there, and I've had my attachments to more than one idea or school of thought or so-called expert that I didn't want to give up on.
My years of correspondence on the Internet with thousands of health seekers, however, has forced me to realize that achieving superior health is not as simple as many gurus would have us believe.
Many health writers negate much of the good that their basic regimen offers because they refuse to make improvements that conflict with their theories. Sadly, ego often blocks the path of an honest search for the truth. From hard experience, I now realize that ultimate health comes from balance and being open to all kinds of information that will help you learn to interpret the signals coming from your body.
I hope you will research diet and health carefully so you can make the best decisions for yourself and your family. If you or your spouse or your children aren't thriving on a strict vegan diet, doesn't it make sense to do research on your own rather than to rely on some self-proclaimed expert who in reality doesn't have as firm a grasp on the truth as his strong voice from the lecture of health might lead you to believe?
I'm not the only former vegan who feels this way. One of my colleagues here on the Internet, who also corresponds daily with hundreds of health seekers, has reached conclusions similar to mine. To read the important story of an expectant mother who realized in time that a strict vegan diet might harm her and her unborn child, click here.
In closing, the modern Western diet sickens us with its overload of meat, salt, bad fats, white sugar, white flour, and its deficiency of living foods. But to totally forego all animal foods -- and salt, which I'll write about in a future article -- can lead to trouble down the road, trouble that can sometimes remain undetected until irreparable damage is done.
A famous writer and ex-vegan by the name of Upton Sinclair, the activist who forced the meat-packing industry to clean up its act many decades ago when he wrote The Jungle, found he couldn't maintain his work levels on a vegan diet.
Writing sadly that he hated to give up veganism, Sinclair did so nonetheless because he found his brain just wouldn't function at an optimal level on fruits, vegetables, juice, nuts, and seeds. He turned to Salisbury steak as his answer.
Although Upton Sinclair was nearly crucified by his vegan friends for changing his diet and writing about the positive results from the change, he maintained that he went where the truth led him.
I feel the same way.