Birth Defects: Vegan Diet or Just Not Enough B-12?

Dear Colleagues:

I read an article in today’s Telegraph, a British newspaper. The title of the article is Vegan diet increases the risk of birth defects, scientists warn. The subtitle of the article is: “Women who are strict vegetarians or vegans may be [at] greater risk of having a child with birth defects because they are likely to be deficient in vitamin B12, researchers warned.” The article discusses a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.

But apart from the title and subtitle of the article, there is no further mention of veganism or vegetarianism.

So I went to my university library site to download the article but it was not yet available as the issue in which the article appears has just come out. But I was able to find the abstract of the article on line.

Interestingly, the abstract does not even contain the word “vegan” or “vegetarian.” The words “vegan” and “vegetarian” do not appear in the list of key words describing the author.

We will have to wait to see what the actual article says but unless the authors did a poor job describing their article in the abstract (and that may well be the case), it appears as though the study only shows a correlation between low B-12 levels and certain birth defects and does not focus on vegan diets and B-12. As a general matter, and as the Telegraph article states, women are advised to ensure that folate levels are adequate during pregnancy to protect against these birth defects. The journal article does not appear to be an indictment of a vegan diet; rather, it appears to make the claim that adequate levels of B-12 may further reduce the risk of these birth defects.

All vegans know (or should know) to be careful about ensuring adequate B-12. This can be done in myriad ways, including eating certain foods that have or that are enriched with B-12. Women who are pregnant, whether they are vegan or not, have to be conscientious about their folate levels and, if this study is correct, about their B-12 levels. Vegans need to be concerned about ensuring that they get their B-12 from their plant sources just as eaters of animal products have to make sure that they get an adequate supply from flesh sources. It is, however, irresponsible to suggest in any case that vegan diets are correlated with birth defects.

A vegan diet can surely present health problems. I would imagine that if someone ate nothing but brussel sprouts every day three times a day, that person would suffer ill effects. But so would someone who ate nothing but steak every day three times a day.

It is inadequate nutrition and not a vegan diet that is correlated with birth defects.

For those who claim that a vegan diet is not “natural” because vegans have to be concerned about B-12, please remember that everyone has to be concerned about B-12 and must consume some food to get that B-12. I consume nutritional yeast; carnivores consume meat. To say that yeast is less “natural” than meat begs the question.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione