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.