Does Milk Really Do a Body Good?

Not according to the late Dr. Spock, and increasing numbers of parents who are choosing animal-free diets for themselves and their children

Many patients of alternative care clinics, employing drugless, nonsurgical healing therapies, have given up on traditional medical techniques, Riabokin says. They are looking to organic diets to replace the antibiotic therapies often prescribed to combat childhood ailments that are far too frequently diet-related. Riabokin stresses that there are no substitutes for breast milk in infancy, but a sudden switch to pasteurized, homogenized, and chemically treated cow's milk can often wreck havoc with a child's immature digestive system.

"We've seen an incredible increase in childhood allergies over the last forty years," Riabokin says. Other possibly preventable conditions include infant colic, ear infections, acne, diabetes, and digestive problems due to general cow's milk intolerance. Natural hormonal balances in pre-pubescents is also thrown off kilter by a high consumption of hormonally modified dairy. On average, American girls now reach puberty at age eleven, compared with age seventeen in Asia where very little dairy is consumed. Milk critics contend that research heralding the health of dairy is skewed to benefit the bottom-line profit of the industry.

Ethics and Responsibility

Pam Finamore, a St. Paul-based attorney, has been raising her five-year-old son, Matthew, on a nonmilk vegetarian diet since his birth. He is the only vegetarian in his preschool class, but Finamore says other parents, teachers, friends, and family have shown only curiosity and support for Matt's animal-restricted diet. "Our pediatrician was fascinated when he saw that Matt was an energetic, happy little kid," she says. "He was very interested and asked me for advice and information on what we ate."

Finamore and her husband, Michael DeJong, biology-department chair at the University of St. Thomas, look at the family's lifestyle from a nutritional as well as moral perspective. "It was simply out of the question that we'd give Matt animal products. There's so much anecdotal as well as scientific evidence that an animal-free diet is a great way for children to receive nutrition and live in a compassionate world."

Finamore practices employment and civil rights, as well as animal-protection law, and says that her own motivation for switching to a plant-based diet eighteen years ago grew from her exposure to the cruelties of modern mass-farming methods. "At that time I really had no idea," Finamore explains. "I just didn't give any thought to where my meat came from before I finally made the connection between a piece of flesh wrapped in plastic and a living animal." Few Americans see the shocking realities of the institutionalized cruelty in the food production industry, Finamore says. The once pastoral vision of the family farm has been nearly choked into the historical archives by the explosion of the high-volume, modern agribusiness. In the United States more than nine billion animals are killed annually for human consumption.

Most chickens are raised in battery cages in an effort to maximize production and profits. Pigs, cows, and other animals are raised indoors in crates and fed by machines--an economically efficient design, but ethically questionable and ecologically devastating.

An unbalanced amount of the earth's natural resources are being used for meat production. Some statistics claim that raising animals for food uses up to ninety percent of the planet's agricultural resources, depleting irreplaceable topsoil, polluting groundwater, and destroying forests and other wildlife habitats. According to the President's Science Advisory Committee, fifteen vegetarians can be fed on the amount of land needed to produce one meat-eater's diet.

The Art of Nutrition

Most vegans obey the recommendations of the "New Four Food Groups." Vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) round out the requirements for a successful plant-based diet. The appropriate amount of each guarantees the necessary vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats required for well-rounded nutrition. While critics name protein and calcium as two essential animal-derived nutrients, vegan advocates argue that a healthy animal-free diet provides ample amounts of both without the negative side effects of a standard milk and meat regimen.

"Avocado is great source of fat. Broccoli is loaded with calcium," Finamore says. "There are always options. You must educate yourself, but it doesn't have to be an arduous task." Finamore says that simple substitutions make a vegan diet undaunting.

Many meals for Matthew include textured vegetable protein (TVP), a soy-derived alternative that mirrors meat products in appearance and flavor. Vegan hamburgers, hot dogs, and luncheon meats mimic the originals with impressive accuracy. With other products such as tofu, hummus, nut butters, and alternative milks such as rice, soy, or nut, a vegan diet can be creative and satisfying to even the most discriminating palates. "It's really not as strange a way of eating as some people think," Finamore says.

While many vegans turn to prepackaged convenience, others believe in the sanctity of natural food in its purest form. Sharon and Scott McKendry are raising their sons, eleven-year-old Alex and nine-year-old Eric, with the wisdom that good nutrition comes from unprocessed, plant-based sources. "We think of it as eating live food instead of dead food," says Sharon McKendry, a commercial artist. She and her husband, Scott, a contractor, eased into veganism as a conscious effort to throw off what they believe to be the flawed guidelines of traditional nutritional choices.

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