NOTE: This is a letter I wrote early this morning to the New York Times' public editor concerning Monday's "Death by Veganism" column:
Dear Mr. Clark Hoyt:
Like many in the community I consider myself a part of, I was shocked and dismayed at the completely factless op-ed piece called "Death by Veganism" written by Nina Planck and printed on Monday, May 21, 2007. The column, because it appeared in such a highly respected and well-read newspaper, trashed vegans so thoroughly that it did more damage than all of the positive efforts vegans have made through the years to educate other people about what veganism is all about. I understand the column was printed on the opinion page, but I have issue with the Times allowing columns containing such gross factual errors to appear in print. Nina Planck is not a nutritionist and she does not cite any sources either from either nutritionists or dietitians or from actual studies on veganism in her column. Yet, over and over, she makes unsubstantiated statements about the deleterious health effects of veganism. She crosses the line from opinion to simply fantasy, and she hurt a lot of people in what she did, including myself. The Times failed to fact-check, failed to write a prompt correction or retraction, failed to print an op-ed rebuttal (I offered one on Monday, the day the column appeared in the Times, and I attached it to this e-mail as a Microsoft Word document) and failed to print letters to the editor in a timely fashion. I have been a newspaper journalist for eight years, including a supervisor of reporters, and I understand the value of printing opinions in the newspaper and getting different viewpoints, but the newspaper must hold the columnists to the same standard as reporters in the printing of facts. Columnists should be allowed to express their opinions, but they should not be allowed to change what is factual. Imagine if one of the Times' columnists said President Bush had invaded Australia. It wouldn't be factual and shouldn't be printed. That is different than weighing in on something that is factual, like the war in Iraq. The consensus of the scientific community is that a vegan diet is healthy. Both the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in June 2003 and the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research in its summer 2003 issue both printed the following statement: “Well-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.” Dr. John McDougall, a highly respected physician and nutrition expert, illustrates very well many of the incorrect points Planck made in his column. I pasted Dr. McDougall's piece from http://www.drmcdougall.com/response_to_ny_times.htm:
Nina Planck writes: “You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.”
The scientific truth is: Babies at 6 weeks of age require human breast milk and any other diet means malnutrition. Imagine if the exact opposite approach killed an infant with a formula made of pulverized beef and cow’s milk, would this have received similar worldwide press? I believe the case would have been properly considered child neglect (intentional or not) and have gone unnoticed except for those intimately involved. “People love to hear good news about their bad habits” so the tragedy of the death of an infant caused by misguided parents who fed their infant apple juice and soy milk for the first 6 weeks of life has been used to justify eating meat and drinking cow’s milk.
Nina Planck writes: Protein deficiency is one danger of a vegan diet for babies. Nutritionists used to speak of proteins as “first class” (from meat, fish, eggs and milk) and “second class” (from plants), but today this is considered denigrating to vegetarians.
The scientific truth is: Confusion about our protein needs came from studies of the nutritional needs of animals. Mendel and Osborne in 1913 reported rats grew better on animal, than on vegetable, sources of protein. A direct consequence of their studies resulted in meat, eggs, and dairy foods being classified as superior, or “Class A” protein sources and vegetable proteins designated as inferior, or “Class B” proteins. Seems no one considered that rats are not people. One obvious difference in their nutritional needs is rat milk is 11 times more concentrated in protein than is human breast milk. The extra protein supports this animal’s rapid growth to adult size in 5 months; while humans take 17 years to fully mature. The world’s authority on human protein needs, Prof. Joseph Millward, wrote the following: “Contrary to general opinion, the distinction between diet ary protein sources in terms of the nutritional superiority of animal over plant proteins is much more difficult to demonstrate and less relevant in human nutrition.” (References in my April 2007 newsletter.)
Nina Planck writes: 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.
The scientific truth is: Proteins function as structural materials which build the scaffoldings that maintain cell shapes, enzymes which catalyze biochemical reactions, and hormones which signal messages between cells—to name only a few of their vital roles. Since plants are made up of structurally sound cells with enzymes and hormones, they are by nature rich sources of proteins. In fact, so rich are plants that they can meet the protein needs of the earth’s largest animals: elephants, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and cows. You would be correct to deduce that the protein needs of relatively small humans can easily be met by plants. (References in my April 2007 newsletter.)
Nina Planck writes: Yet even a breast-fed baby is at risk. Studies show that vegan breast milk lacks enough docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the omega-3 fat found in fatty fish.
The scientific truth is: Only plants can synthesize essential fats. Any DHA found in animals had its origin from a plant (as alpha linolenic acid). The human body has no difficulty converting plant-derived omega-3 fat, alpha linolenic acid, into DHA or other n-3 fatty acids, supplying our needs even during gestation and infancy.
Reference: Langdon JH. Has an aquatic diet been necessary for hominin brain evolution and functional development? Br J Nutr. 2006 Jul;96(1):7-17.
Mothers who eat the Western diet pass dangerous loads of environmental contaminants through their breast milk to their infants. Meat, dairy and fish in her diet are the source of 80% to 90% of these toxic chemicals. The cleanest and healthiest milk is made by mothers eating a starch-based vegan diet.
Nina Planck writes: A vegan diet is equally dangerous for weaned babies and toddlers, who need plenty of protein and calcium.
The scientific truth is: Infants should be exclusively breast fed until age 6 months and then partially breast fed until approximately 2 years of age. Starches, fruits, and vegetables should be added after the age of 6 months. The addition of cow’s milk causes problems as common as constipation and as devastating as type-1 diabetes. (See my May 2003 newsletter on Marketing Milk and Disease.) Adding meat to an infant’s diet is one of the main reasons all children raised on the Western diet have the beginnings of atherosclerosis by the age of 2 years.
Nina Planck writes: “An adult who was well-nourished in utero and in infancy may choose to get by on a vegan diet, but babies are built from protein, calcium, cholesterol and fish oil.”
The scientific truth is: Babies are ideally built from mother’s breast milk initially and then from whole foods. Hopefully, parents will realize that the healthiest diet for the entire family (after weaning) is based on starches with the addition of fruits and vegetables. (Vitamin B12 is added to the diet of pregnant or nursing mothers and after 3 years of following a plant-based diet strictly.)
Nina Planck has been allowed by the New York Times to exploit the tragedy of a family and to spread commonly held, but scientifically incorrect, information on human nutrition. The author and the newspaper should be held accountable. Hopefully, the end result will be that people desiring the truth will take the trouble to look at the evidence. If this were to be the case, then this New York Times article could be the beginning of long overdue changes in the ways people eat. Write and tell everyone you know that the New York Times has done a sloppy job, and damage to the public, by allowing harmful lies to be spread—especially when you consider that Planck’s message promotes a diet known to cause obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and major cancers.
The fact is, Mr. Hoyt, that Nina Planck has not only hurt vegans and what we stand for, but she has hurt the credibility of a newspaper I respect very much. I hope you can address some of these issues I made and the fact-checking that Dr. McDougall made. How should the opinion editor know when to reject a column submission? Editors on the opinion desk need to be more alert. I appreciate your time and hope you can help with these matters.