death by sensationalism: revisiting perceptions of vegan diets

a few weeks ago, a friend of mine linked to an article about a vegan couple charged with the murder of their infant son, Crown Shakur. i spent some time reading the news coverage of this story, and the entire case struck me as deeply strange. the couple's son died of extreme malnourishment, and was severely emaciated by the time he was brought to the hospital. the parents do appear to have been vegans, and to have fed their baby apple juice and soy milk.

however, this story has been taken up in the media (and by many people) to illustrate the dangers of radical lifestyles gone wrong, proof that some vegans are so blinded by their slavish commitment to forgoing animal products that they might endanger or even kill their own children.

while i'm not surprised to see the story interpreted this way, i think it suggests more about popular views of veganism (and similarly politicized diets) -- supposedly practiced by people whose good sense is easily overwhelmed by their radical convictions. last week's Op-Ed in the Times just reinforced this line of reasoning. Nina Planck, in "Death by Veganism," argues that the Shakur case should "prompt frank discussion about nutrition," and as a former vegan herself, came to the enlightened conclusion that "a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible." she then makes a currently popular move, referencing "indigenous cuisines" to support her views. never mind that there are societies that consume no dairy, and very little meat (many parts of east Asia come to mind, and it should always be remembered that meat is often expensive and considered a luxury, while our neolithic ancestors most likely ate a lot of roots, nuts, and other gathered foods, only occasionally supplemented by meat). moreover, "traditional" diets cannot necessarily be considered a fail-safe guide to healthy eating. of course, Planck's argument that animals provide the best quality of protein leaves out the most pertinent fact -- human meat offers the most easily digestible protein of all!

cannibalism aside, i don't disagree that meatless diets require more attention to certain nutritional issues (though conversely, one might point out that the Standard American Diet doesn't include sufficient vitamins, minerals, and fiber, or fruits and vegetables). in a consumer society saturated with cheap food products, eating healthy already requires careful attention to labels and meals, whether it's avoiding transfat and high fructose corn syrup, or including enough whole grains and vegetables, and attending to organic and sustainable modes of food production.

but ultimately, this discussion is irrelevant to the death of Crown Shakur. back to the actual news coverage, it appears that the infant died because he was not fed enough of anything -- according not to the defense, but to the prosecutors. Shakur's parents were not convicted of killing their child by veganism, but by severe malnourishment. nothing about this case suggests that vegan diets themselves be scrutinized for dietary insufficiency -- in fact, the American Dietary Association endorses vegan and vegetarian diets, saying "[w]ell-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence." of course, it may be more challenging to plan a healthy vegan diet for small children, but any more so than trying to address the issue of childhood obesity? sensationalism aside, thoughtful veganism still appears to be a far healthier choice than the diets most Americans consume -- and feed to their children.

1 comment:

naturebunny said...

Good post. I appreciate your honesty and the way you look at it from all angles. I do agree.. a vegan diet is a lot healthier than what some parents feed their children.. chips and soda pop for breakfast and greasy mcdonalds for supper. It's really sick. Those kids may be plump but most of them are extremely malnourished!