February 27, 2005

Unethical vegetarianism  

Pejman Yousefzadeh points out this story about the dangers of a vegetarian diet for children. Here's the relevant researcher, Lindsay Allen:

"If you're talking about feeding young children and pregnant women and lactating women I would go as far as to say it is unethical to withhold these foods during that period of life," she said. "There's a lot of empirical research that will show the very adverse effects on child development of doing that."


Prof Allen made the claims after her research showed that adding just two spoonfuls of meat to the daily diet of poverty-stricken children in Africa transformed them physically and mentally. Over two years the children almost doubled their muscle development, and showed dramatic improvements in mental skills. They also became more active, talkative and playful at school.


The African study involved 544 children in Kenya, typically aged about seven, whose diet chiefly consists of starchy, low-nutrition corn and bean staples lacking these micronutrients. Over a period of two years, one group of the children was given a daily supplement of two ounces of meat. Two other groups received a cup of milk a day or an oil supplement containing the same amount of energy. A fourth group ate their normal diet.

This experiment seems pretty useless as an indicator of anything except the dietary needs of children in Kenya. Most of the time when you talk about vegetarianism in the United States, the diet is more varied than just "starchy, low-nutrition corn and bean staples" -- every vegetarian I know likes fresh vegetables, for example, and most are careful to include proteins (pulses!) of different kinds in their diets.

Also, it makes me wonder about cultures that are traditionally vegetarian. I know a goodly number of whip-smart Indians who haven't eaten two ounces of meat in their whole lives. Are they experiencing the same adverse effects? Maybe some research on the effects of different vegetarian diets (Kenyan vs Indian, vegan vs vegetarian) is in order...

Balasubramani  {February 27, 2005}

Definitely, I will place my parents in that category, and they haven't eaten a shred of meat in their lives.

Thanks for posting this comment. I grew up vegetarian, ate meat for a couple of years and now I'm back.

I find non-meat products to be a bit cleaner.

barrett  {February 28, 2005}

I'm reading a book now on the history of vegetarianism that claims vegetarian diets in countries where meat is usually eaten tend to provoke strong reactions. As a perk of wealth and position, the ruling class in these societies usually gets more meat than the peasantry, so a voluntarily vegetarian diet is seen implicitly as a rejection of the political hierarchy and subversive to the established social order. The political subtext contributes to the strong emotions are displayed when vegetarians and non-vegetarians clash.

More directly, it's obvious Lindsay Allen is an ass. What if I'd found that children fed entirely on yak speen have a greater number of nutritional deficiencies and developmental disabilities? Does this prove vegetarianism is clearly a superior diet?


Pamela  {February 28, 2005}

What we should be concerned about is starving children with no food at all. I would suggest that we would want children in Kenya and all over the world to have some food and not be picky about what they eat. Simply put, Allen is an elitist who does not realzie the magnitude of starvation and lack of food distribution in the world. She should research how many children dies from hunger than figuring out that Kenya kids need meat in their diets.

paul  {February 28, 2005}

Yikes! I don't think she's quite worthy of these scathing attacks! It's completel reasonable to look at vegetarianism and nutrition, and the proper realm of science. And while I don't think this particular experiment justified the claims she was making, there were other relevant studies mentioned in the Guardian article I linked to...

barrett  {February 28, 2005}

Actually, I think she does deserve to be attacked. It's a lazy study and was presented in a way to ensure the press would pick up on it and sensationalize it.

As for simply adding meat to the diet, if the people have no religious or cultural objection - go for it. But one should be sensitive to the cultures one's working with. It would do less than zero good to deliver beef to starving Hindus or bacon wrapped pork loins to starving Muslims. It's not just "being picky".

paul  {February 28, 2005}

Disagreeing with someone and attacking them are two different things -- at least in my opinion. Obviously I think the thing is flawed too, or I wouldn't have written the post. I guess I just felt like the tone of the responses above was a little out of proportion with the offense.

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