Monday, August 19, 2013

Babycare: finding natural and vegan alternatives... in France

France may be one of the least veg*an-friendly places to raise a baby.  Vegans are widely regarded as dangerous extremists, or crazy folks.  (Guess which one I am.)  Nevertheless, it is possible to purchase vegan-friendly babycare products even here.

Whether or not you buy natural, cruelty-free products will depend partly on your ability to pay -- not everyone can afford €14.25 for 1 litre of gel wash, or €3.90 for a pack of 70 wipes that will all end up covered in poo.  You can regard these as a sort of selective luxury, however: for our family, it fits into the household budget, since we don't spend any money on booze, cigarettes, nights out, or new clothes (except for baby, that is -- the clothes, not the booze).  Who needs nights out when you can be up all night with a 1-month-old?

Why buy natural?  Not all vegan products are 100% natural, of course (and not all natural products are vegan!).  You can certainly buy cruelty-free without buying petroleum-free or paraben-free.  However, many non-natural products have off-putting effects on our health and on the environment (e.g., petroleum-based creams have been linked to breast cancer and lipoid pneumonia).

Here's my list of plant-based alternatives to common babycare products (and one mamacare item as well).

Natural / vegan babycare alternatives

All-in-one baby wash and shampoo: Douce Nature

This all-in-one soap-free wash leaves baby smelling of calendula and of her own sweet self.  Hypoallergenic and very gentle, so it's suitable for babies with mild eczema.  Bonus points for the brand, which avoids non-vegan ingredients and does not test on animals.

Available in France from bébé-au-naturel.

Babywipes: Alphanova Nature

The packaging specifies that these wipes are "100% végétal".

These are alcohol-free, so you might want to choose a different brand that does contain alcohol, such as Naty Babycare Sensitive Wipes, if your baby often gets bum-rash.  [N.B. I have not been able to verify whether Naty wipes are vegan.]

Oily jelly for bums and other dry spots: Lush Ultrabalm (or home-made blend)

When you need a really thick, oily moisturizer, Lush Ultrabalm does the trick.  We used it on baby's face when she got mild eczema.  It is an effective, earth-friendly (and skin-friendly) alternative to petroleum jelly.

For an excellent (and cheaper) home-made alternative, melt 4/5 measure cocoa butter or shea butter together with 1/5 measure olive oil or other vegetable oil in a bain-marie or microwave.  Store in an an extremely clean glass jar.  (The measures are approximate -- you can adjust to suit your preferred texture.)  This is softer and therefore more convenient to use than cocoa or shea butter alone.  And if you use cocoa butter, your baby will smell like chocolate (for reals).

Moisturizing cleanser for bum area: Gifrer Liniment Oléo-Calcaire

I'm a fan of really simple, effective products like Gifrer's liniment.

This liquid moisturizing cleanser consists of nothing but olive oil and calcium hydroxide -- natural and perfect for vegans.  It's fantastic for gently removing the sticky meconium that babies poo in the first few days of their lives.  And it's a good post-bath moisturizer if needed.

Vegan mothers' nipple cream of choice: pure cocoa butter

Nipple creams soothe sore nipples -- especially in the first few weeks of breastfeeding, when you're getting used to the experience.  Sadly, most commercial nipple creams contain lanolin, an ingredient derived from sheep's wool, and most definitely not vegan.

Cocoa butter does not have the same properties as lanolin; it will not protect your nipples to the same degree.  However, it is good enough for most common-or-garden varieties of sore nipples, keeps your skin supple, and is harmless for baby, according to several pediatricians that we consulted.

I recommend melting a small blob of cocoa butter in your palms and rubbing it on sore nipples after your shower, or more often if needed.  I found it necessary at the beginning, but didn't need it at all after a couple of months.

And no sheep were harmed in the making of these nipples.

That's the complete list of babycare products that I use on a daily basis.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cute outfit for vegan babies

"Les Acrobiotes" -- D.P.A.M. (Du pareil au même)

(The words on the shirt say "Les Acrobiotes" -- a play on words with "Les Acrobates", the acrobats.)

A vegan hospital birth (in France)

For most vegans, in most places on earth, veganism is a challenge: "something that by its nature or character serves as a call to battle, contest, special effort, etc".  It's a challenge when you're doing your groceries at the supermarket, when you're visiting (non-vegan) friends, when you're getting lunch at school or college or at work.

When I gave up all animal by-products in 2011 (after almost 20 years of ovo-lacto-vegetarianism), I learned to take the challenge for granted as part of my daily life.

And I ended up taking the challenge with me into hospital when I gave birth.

The birth of my daughter was a dramatic event punctuated by an ambulance ride.  Amid rain and flashing lights, we rode to a city about an hour away from our home (and thus, far away from our kitchen, among other necessary comforts).

Our beautiful girl emerged healthy, lovely and awake.  I started breastfeeding right away.  Breastfeeding, and recovering from delivery, make you hungry as hell.

In the recovery room, a ward nurse visited to ask about my dietary needs.  I explained that I would not consume any animal products whatsoever.  Could this be accommodated?  The nurse wasn't sure.  She would talk to the nutritionist to see what was possible.

The nutritionist visited the next day.  I didn't eat animal products?  Then what did I eat?

Ah, the infamous "what do you vegans eat?" question.  Oh, motor oil mostly.  Manilla envelopes.  Mud.

No, the nutritionist said, it would be impossible to feed me if I did not eat animal products.

Could they at least provide me with plain vegetables?  I asked.  She would see what was possible.

France is not known for being open to veganism -- in fact, it's about as open to veganism as the Vatican is to lesbian Buddhist weddings.  That is slowly changing thanks to associations like L214 -- but my home country is, apparently, a place where even hospital nutritionists can't imagine a world without beef.

It turns out that when they ask you about dietary needs, they're mainly asking about whether or not you eat halal.

I was forced to stay in hospital for four days due to medical issues.  I was ravenous.  Every day, my husband took the tram into the nearby city to buy me whatever vegan food he could find.

Dal and rice; avocados; whole-grain bread; and litres and litres of plain soymilk.

There was no desk in the room, only a tiny tray-on-wheels.  I ate in quick gulps and tried to keep the crumbs off the baby.

Throughout my stay, the staff on the ward made the challenge of veganism even more of a challenge.  I was served milk... beans with butter... The ward nurse continued to bring me dairy yogurt as a snack -- and every single time, I had to tell her I would not eat it and did not want it in the room.

One day, the ward nurse came in while I was breastfeeding and demanded to know (and not in a polite way) why I was vegan.  I gave her a nice reply, but... c'mon... I was exhausted and on drugs.  What was my religion? she wanted to know.  (She was wearing a catholic saint's medallion around her neck.)  Many religions have encouraged compassion to animals, I told her.  What was my religion? she kept asking.  She wouldn't even leave when my newborn daughter started crying for attention -- until I kicked her out of the room, wishing I had never been polite to her at all.

France is, in many ways, a profoundly conformist society.  Veganism is a difference that people like this ward nurse may treat as an invitation to harass or interrogate -- as if you turned up to a business meeting wearing a trikini or a clown suit (or a trikini clown suit).

And so the challenge lasted until we could leave the hospital and return to our home, and home-cooked vegan meals.

I have a lot of good things to say about veganism and pregnancy -- that's why I started this blog.  But I have nothing good to say about the way I was treated at the hospital, as a vegan, after my daughter's birth.

So why continue to be vegan under such difficult circumstances?  Why endure the harassment, the ignorance, the indifference and the inconvenience?

Because veganism is an ethical commitment.

Because ethics mean nothing if you stick to them only when they are convenient.

And, for all the challenges, I would bet good money that I ate a much healthier and more nutritious diet than any other patient in that hospital simply by eating the "convenience food" that my husband picked up at the supermarket.

Breastfeeding and parenting have not reduced my commitment to veganism -- they have reinforced it, by giving me greater compassion towards the animals that are kept on dairy farms and egg farms, deprived of normal relationships with their parents and children, kept apart from those they love.

And my advice for vegan moms who give birth in hospital: pack soymilk.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Vegan eating for two: third trimester

Breakfast: decaf w/ soymilk + oatmeal w/ protein powder & dried cranberries

Vegan supplements: a multivitamin, an iron pill, and vegetarian fatty acids

Lunch: quinoa w/ olive oil & caramelized garlic + smoky tempeh strips

Lunch, continued: organic mixed salad w/ raspberry vinaigrette + fresh fruit

Snack: decaf chai w/ soymilk + popcorn + chocolate fudge cupcake + 1/2 banana

Dinner: penne w/ caramelized onions and organic basil

Postprandial hot chocolate w/ vegan marshmallows & fresh fruit
As we progress through the third trimester, I feel baby moving a lot more, and I eat a lot more food.

After being vegetarian since age 12, I went completely vegan at age 29, about half a year before getting pregnant.  The adjustment from vegetarianism to veganism was almost as radical as the shift from meat-eating to vegetarianism, because -- as silly as it sounds -- I was so used to relying on cheese.  (Very often, cheese sandwiches are the only vegetarian options in coffeeshops and cafeterias; my workplace sells pizza, whereas it sells exactly zero vegan lunch options.)  However, I could no longer accept the ethical compromise involved in the consumption of dairy products.

Fast-forward to the present, and eating enough for not one but two vegans (me + baby) has become second nature.  Contrary to popular belief, protein is the least of your concerns if you are already used to structuring your meals around vegan sources of protein such as grains, nuts, and beans, including soy products (and unlike non-veg protein -- meat, eggs, dairy products -- vegan sources of protein are basically all good for you).

When you first go vegan, it's easy to underestimate the quantity of fat and salt that you should add to your food in the cooking process, since you may have been used to getting a lot of both from animal products.  Salt and healthy vegan fats are both especially important in pregnancy.  Fats such as olive oil, the oils in flax and chia seeds, etc. are all important sources of nutrients (such as Vitamin E, and omega-3s + 6s, essential to baby's brain development), while pregnant women tend to have higher salt requirements than non-pregnant women, because of the altered fluid balance in their bodies.

I've seen blog posts from former vegans who went back to eating animal products when they got pregnant -- sometimes because of food cravings, sometimes because of hunger, sometimes because of fear, or because of a doctor's poor advice.  All of these problems can be avoided or alleviated if you keep this in mind:

1. Eat enough food.  That means getting enough vegan calories every day.  Pregnant women need more calories.  If you don't eat enough -- calories, protein, fat, salt -- you will get terrible cravings for animal foods.

2. Be proud, not afraid.  You're making a positive ethical choice that you will be able to explain to your child(ren) with pride -- and if you're afraid (that your diet is unhealthy, that others might judge you, etc...) the best remedy is to...

3. Educate yourself.  Learning remedies fear; knowledge remedies ignorance.  You can't argue with your family or your doctor about nutrition unless you're educated about the scientific facts -- and if you're vegan, the facts are in your favor.  Study what it is that you need to eat to get enough of the essential nutrients, and learn how to get those from a vegan diet.  New books on vegan pregnancy make this easier than ever.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The toxic list: problems that pregnant vegans DON'T have

Mainstream pregnancy books rarely mention veganism at all, and when they do, it's usually to warn that vegans are at a greater risk of nutritional deficiencies compared to omnivores.  This is not completely unreasonable, but it misses important benefits of a plant-based diet: vegans have a lower risk of many pregnancy problems, ranging from gestational diabetes in the mother to spina bifida in the baby.

This is obvious if you look at a typical list of "foods to avoid in pregnancy": fish high in mercury; soft cheese; hot dogs; sushi; undercooked eggs; medium-rare hamburgers... and it goes on.  None of these foods form part of a vegan diet.  All of them carry serious health risks in pregnancy.

Sources include March of Dimes, Drugline, and Otis Pregnancy
In theory, it should be easy for omnivores to cut these out of their daily diets.  In practice, old habits die hard.  A significant percentage of women continue to drink alcohol throughout their pregnancies, in spite of the well-known risks.  Why would it be any easier for pregnant women to cut out hot dogs, sushi, or smoked salmon?

On top of this, a significant percentage of pregnancies are unplanned -- in the U.S., it's around 40%.  (Bombshell, I know!)  This increases the likelihood that a pregnant woman will consume risky foods before she realizes that there's a small human growing inside her uterus -- and it increases the benefits of veganism before and during those early stages of gestation.

"But my friends said you couldn't get pregnant on prom night!"

If you gave up animal products as an adult, you probably got to experience the clear-up effect, in which you stopped having mysterious episodes of 24-hour "stomach flu" and other miscellaneous gastrointestinal disasters.  As Eric Schlosser explained years ago in Fast Food Nation, there's no such thing as a 24-hour flu: those fun experiments with diarrhea and projectile vomiting are actually cases of food poisoning, and are almost always caused by the consumption of animal products.

The clear-up effect is even more valuable to pregnant women, because pregnancy suppresses the immune system to prevent it from rejecting the fetus as a parasite.  The body tries to compensate for this immune suppression by building more leukocytes (white blood cells that fight infection), but you may still be more vulnerable to common meat-borne pathogens.  These infections can cause irreversible developmental damage to the baby.

On the "foods to avoid" list, there are, of course, problems other than bacteria: e.g. parasites, mercury, and other industrial pollutants.  Eating fish contaminated with mercury can cause neurological damage to the infant, leading to problems such as retardation, seizures, and at lower levels, ADHD.

A recent scientific study found that the greater a woman's exposure to mercury during pregnancy, the more likely her child was to exhibit ADHD-type behaviors, and even low levels of mercury exposure were risky.  This exposure comes directly from eating fish.  The authors concluded, however, that consuming fish low in mercury had a protective effect against these same developmental problems.

My conclusion is simpler: don't eat fish at all.  There is no known safe level of mercury exposure in pregnancy.  Get your fatty acids elsewhere -- like chia seeds, seaweed, or vegan supplements if necessary.  It's better for the mother, the baby, and the fish.

Toxoplasma gondii: beautiful & deadly
One final point: pregnancy books will tell you not to touch kitty litter because of the risk of acquiring toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can affect humans as well as cats.  Toxoplasmosis has a range of bizarre effects on adults; it's implicated in cases of schizophrenia and risk-taking behavior, among other things.

Exposure in utero has a much more nasty range of outcomes.  However, pregnancy books rarely explain that the consumption of undercooked meat is another major way of getting toxo into your system.  (Unwashed vegetables can also be contaminated, because toxo also lives in dirt -- wash your damn vegetables!  The difference is that you cannot wash toxo out of meat.)

Jaroslav Flegr, a toxoplasmosis specialist, points out that:
Humans ... are exposed not only by coming into contact with litter boxes, but also, he found, by drinking water contaminated with cat feces, eating unwashed vegetables, or, especially in Europe, by consuming raw or undercooked meat. Hence the French, according to Flegr, with their love of steak prepared saignant—literally, “bleeding”—can have infection rates as high as 55 percent.  [Source: The Atlantic]
By comparison, Americans have an infection rate of only 10-20%, in spite of high rates of cat ownership in both countries.

It is frustrating that the doctors who write mainstream baby books think of veganism solely in terms of its risks and not in terms of its rewards.  My reasons to be vegan are ethical first; however, there are numerous secondary benefits -- to health, to the environment -- and pregnant vegans have lots of reasons to be cheerful.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Science of Vegan Pregnancy 01: maternal serum screening and blood levels of vitamin B12

Nearly ten years ago, a group of Taiwanese researchers came out with a study showing that vegan and vegetarian pregnant women were more likely to receive false positives on a common test called a "maternal serum screening."  This is a big deal for veg*an pregnancies because a positive MSS result can lead to a more invasive procedure, an amniocentesis, that carries a chance of miscarriage and other damage to the fetus.  And of course, a false positive can lead to a lot of unnecessary distress.

In effect, "normal" test results for veg*ans don't look the same as normal test results for omnivores, and that information should affect how doctors interpret our tests.

Maternal serum screening tests for the likelihood that a fetus has Down's syndrome.  The test is a numbers game: it doesn't give you a yes or no answer.  It only determines whether you (the pregnant woman) are more or less likely than other women your age to have a Down's syndrome baby.

MSS measures the levels of several different proteins in a pregnant woman's blood: typically human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), and unconjugated estriol (uE3), sometimes with the addition of inhibin A.  (FYI, hCG is the same hormone that is detected by pregnancy tests.

If the hormone levels are off (some higher than average, some lower than average), the test will come back positive.  An elevated level of hCG is a risk factor.

Open for interpretation?
[image credit here]
I started looking into this because I'm vegan, and my MSS results came back positive.  That is, I had an elevated chance (compared to other women my age) of having a baby with Down's syndrome.  The previous month, my overworked and barely-English-speaking GP recorded an incorrect date of conception, which meant that I did not receive another common Down's syndrome screening test (a nuchal translucency ultrasound).  Thus, the MSS was the only test we had to go on when deciding whether or not to get an amniocentesis -- and where to go from there.

Enter google scholar, which directed me to this article on MSS and vegetarianism.  The authors of the study are Taiwanese doctors working with Taiwanese women.  Taiwan is a particularly good place to conduct research on vegetarianism and health because: 1. it has a ton of research hospitals; 2. a high proportion of the population is vegetarian for religious reasons -- mostly Mahayana Buddhism, but also various forms of neo-hybrid-Buddhist-Daoism, and completely original religions like that of Supreme Master Ching Hai, who tells all her followers to be vegan.  Taiwan even has a dedicated Buddhist research hospital where all the canteens serve vegetarian food.

We don't all have our own TV stations... [image credit here]
Back to our study.  Cheng et al, the authors of the study, found that:

Vegan and vegetarian pregnant woman have higher average levels of b-hCG.

• This means that midtrimester serum screening produces more false positives for vegan and vegetarian pregnancies.

There's a correlation between lower vitamin B12 levels and higher b-hCG levels.  Thus, women with a lower concentration of vitamin B12 in their blood (but who are not necessarily deficient in vitamin B12) are more likely to get a false positive test result.

• The greater number of false positives on the test leads to more invasive and unnecessary screening procedures (such as amniocentesis) for vegan and vegetarian pregnant women.

And finally...

Low vitamin B12 levels do correlate to at least one other "danger signal" in pregnancy, namely, higher levels of plasma homocystine (associated with a host of nasty problems -- birth defects, pre-eclampsia, etc. etc.).  So in theory, it's possible that low vitamin B12 levels in vegan and vegetarian women would correlate to these kinds of pregnancy complications -- but, as the authors point out, this question needs further research.  (I ain't panicking -- but I am taking B12 supplements, and have been throughout the pregnancy.)

So what happened with my test results?

My GP sent me to an OB/GYN, who told me not to panic.  He arranged a further ultrasound screening that indicated a lower than average likehood of Down's syndrome.  I opted for no amniocentesis.  And that's the end of that story (until the baby's born).

I did tell my OB/GYN about the study, but I live in a town with approximately 2 other vegans, one of which I'm married to... so he may never meet another pregnant vegan in his entire career.

And fortunately, neither my GP (who is a caste vegetarian) nor my OB/GYN (an average beef-eater) ever tried to argue me out of veganism.


Cheng PJ, Chu DC, Chueh HY, See LC, Chang HC, Weng DR.  2004.  "Elevated maternal midtrimester serum free beta-human chorionic gonadotropin levels in vegetarian pregnancies that cause increased false-positive Down syndrome screening results."  American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 190 (No. 2), pp. 442-7.