Vegan Diet Damages Baby’s Brain – Sensationalism!

People Love to Hear Good News About Their Bad Habits!

National news agencies carried a story about a January 31, 2003 report from the CDC on two young children who developed problems with brain development as a result of breast feeding from mothers on a vegan (pure vegetarian) diet.  The cause was suspected to be vitamin B-12 deficiency and in both cases treatment with B-12 corrected most of their troubles.

Whenever a story surfaces condemning eating vegetables, especially when the focus is on those eccentric vegetarians, it makes front page news and is welcome reading for people longing to hear their meat- and dairy- centered diet is better than all that “health food nonsense.”

Let me begin by acknowledging there is a little truth in most stories that make the headlines – this one is no exception.  The truth here is that a vegan diet (a diet with no animal products of any kind), unless supplemented with B-12, is deficient in this vitamin, and has been found in very rare cases to result in problems of vitamin B-12 deficiency.  B-12 is made by bacteria and is stored in the body parts of animals that eat these bacteria.  If you search the medical literature carefully, you will find about a dozen cases ascribed to a vegetarian diet (search – and almost every one of these has made front page news.  Compare this risk to 1.25 million heart attacks (half fatal) annually in the USA that get almost no media attention and are accepted as part of our modern way of life.

Furthermore, most reported cases of B-12 deficiency are not clear cut; they are surrounded with controversy because other factors are usually involved (like parental neglect, underlying diseases, and generally very poor nutrition).  My reading of the case histories of the two children that generated this story leads me to believe that they were sickly and malnourished children for reasons other than simply a low supply of B-12 in their mother’s breast milk.  Read the report yourself and see what you think:  Regardless, any diet I recommend will be adequate in all nutrients to ensure excellent health.

B-12 is the only legitimate criticism of a healthy vegan diet

There are no other nutritional deficiencies caused by a vegan diet of whole plant foods – in other words, there is no chance of calcium, amino acid, protein, vitamin D, essential fatty acid, zinc, or iron deficiency – except B-12 deficiency.  To avoid controversy from the scientific community or any criticism of my recommendations, I have for the past 25 years made a clear, consistent recommendation in all of my books and tapes about B-12.  This is what I have written:  If you follow our diet for more than 3 years or if you are pregnant or nursing, then take a minimum of 5 micrograms of B-12 a day.  This recommendation avoids all risk of dietary-caused B-12 deficiency – the human body stores a 20 to 30 year reserve of B-12 in most people.

B-12 deficiency is usually accompanied by minor problems, like a well-tolerated anemia that is easily reversible with supplementation with the vitamin and/or changes in the nervous system, like tingling sensations (paresthesias) that are reversible until late stages.  On very rare occasions more serious neurological consequences, like the poor development, have been reported.  When the victims are children with brain damage, the emotional juices of the sensation-seeking public flow overboard.

A B-12 sufficient diet causes serious illnesses for billions of people

Weigh this risk of B-12 deficiency from avoiding all animal products against an opposing stand of assuring sufficient B-12 by eating lots of meat, poultry and dairy products – in other words, the Western diet.

For the unborn infant the consequences of mother following the Western diet are:

1)  An abnormally large baby that is too big to fit through the mother’s birth canal, and therefore requiring a cesarean section – the medical description is “failure of progression of labor.”1 Twenty-five percent of mothers deliver by this major surgery in the USA.

2)  Thousands of birth defects annually, of which most are known to be due to too little folic acid in the expectant mother’s diet.2  Folic acid is from foliage, in other words, plants.  Birth defects from folic acid deficiency include spina bifida (the spinal canal fails to close in development of the spinal cord, and when left exposed, often causes paraplegia), and anencephalia (where the child is born without a brain).  Heart deformities, cleft palate, and many other birth defects are also caused by eating too few vegetables by the mother prior to and during early pregnancy.  You will never see folic acid deficiency in a healthy vegan mother.

For the young child the Western diet causes:

1) The beginnings of atherosclerosis, known as fatty streak development.  Children raised on cow’s milk, meat, and other delicacies found on a typical B-12-sufficient Western diet show fatty streaks in their aorta beginning at 9 months of age and all children on this diet have this artery damage by age 3 years. 3 These streaks evolve into well-known heart attacks and stokes in adulthood.

2) Obesity and overweight affect at least 25% of children on the Western diet. Approximately 22 million children under 5 years of age are overweight across the world.4

If you have any doubts about the wisdom of a healthy vegan diet then look around your neighborhood.  Children on B-12-sufficient diets with lots of ice cream, milk, hot dogs, egg muffins, and chicken nuggets are fat and sick.  The obvious signs and symptoms are snotty noses, ear infections, stomach aches, and headaches.  Get to know them better and you will find them constipated with bloody bowel movements.  The pain and suffering inflicted on children by the American diet is so brutal that if it were administered with a stick, parents would be put in jail.  Because the instruments of injury are a fork and spoon, everyone ignores the agony as if nothing was out of the ordinary, and nothing could be done to remedy the problems – you know so well that is not true.

For the Adult the Western diet causes:

In order to avoid a one-in-a-million risk of an anemia or neurological problem caused by a vegan diet alone, you risk a:

1 in 2 chance of dying prematurely of heart disease,

1 in 10 chance of breast or prostate cancer,

65% chance of being at least overweight

22% chance of being obese

almost certainty of arthritis, indigestion and/or constipation.

(I could go on for several pages)

What to do?

First, have faith that a low-fat vegan diet, based around unrefined starches, vegetables and fruits, is the healthiest diet for men, women and children (after the age of 2 years).  From birth to 6 months babies should be exclusively breast-fed.  After 6 months, solid foods in the form of starches, vegetables and fruits, are added in increasing amounts and breast milk is continued until at least 2 years of age.  Failure to breast feed puts your child at a high risk of death and disease.1  Follow my recommendations for B-12 (above) by finding a reliable B-12 supplement in the natural foods store.  If you have any question about your B-12 status you can have your blood checked for your body’s B-12 levels.  (Deficiency is a level less than 150 pmol/L).

You might ask, “Why would a diet so perfect in all other ways be deficient in a necessary vitamin?”  Most likely the answer is that we live in an unnatural world these days.  Remember, B-12 is made by bacteria.  Our world is sterilized because of an irrational fear of germs. Once people consumed trillions of helpful B-12 producing-bacteria daily – they lived with their chickens, goats, and horses.  Today everything is sanitized by hand-washing, antiseptics, antibiotics, mouth washes, and cleaning agents.  To compensate, we must add back B-12, or possibly, live more naturally, like I do, with my B-12 producing dog, cat, and birds.


1)  McDougall J.  The McDougall program for Women. Plume, 2000.

2) Kalter H. Folic acid and human malformations: a summary and evaluation.
Reprod Toxicol. 2000 Sep-Oct;14(5):463-76.

3) Holman R.  The natural history of atherosclerosis.  The early aortic lesions as seen in New Orleans in the middle 20th century.  Am J Pathol 1958;34:209.

4)  Deckelbaum RJ.  Childhood obesity: the health issue.  Obes Res. 2001 Nov;9 Suppl 4:239S-243S.

Email this page to a friend or coworker

  You May Subscribe to this free McDougall Newsletter at
  Newsletter archive

2003 John McDougall All Rights Reserved

Hit Counter