I don’t think there is any way to post about this subject, and my thoughts on it, without getting into trouble in the comments. Oh well, here goes.
Recently, an member of the very conservative Forza Italia party proposed a law that would sentence parents to 1-2 years in jail for not providing a balanced diet to children under 16. As the article I found written in English phrases it:
Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party wants to see parents who feed children under 16 a vegan diet jailed for up to a year.
That sounds both hilarious, and a little extreme. So, I went in search of a more detailed article from Italian news outlets, and found a decent article on the subject in La Reppublica. I feel that a little clarification is needed before I comment on the topic.
First of all, the law does not specifically mention veganism. The wording of the proposal is as follows:
[la legge] rende penalmente perseguibile chi “impone o adotta nei confronti di un minore degli anni 16, sottoposto alla sua responsabilità genitoriale o a lui affidato per ragione di educazione, istruzione, cura, vigilanza o custodia, una dieta alimentare priva di elementi essenziali per la crescita sana ed equilibrata del minore stesso”
Translation: [the law would] render punishable by law those who “impose or adopt for a minor under 16, who is under their parental responsibility or to them entrusted for reasons of education, instruction, care, vigilance or custody, a diet lacking in essential nutrients for the healthy and balanced growth of that same minor”.
While the law itself does not refer to veganism in particular, but rather to any diet which would lead to malnourishment, it is clear that the politician in question has her sights set on veganism. When asked about it, she talks about “radicalized” parents who impose diets which are far too restrictive to the healthy growth and cognitive development of their children, and mentions the essential nutrients often lacking in a vegan diet as her prime example. While she has no objection to informed adults making their own decisions, she says, it is a different matter entirely when those decisions impact the health and safety of children.
This attitude also does not come out of the blue. Veganism is definitely on the rise in Italy, and with it there have been many children hospitalized for malnutrition. One pediatrician in Rome saw three babies hospitalized for severe B12 deficiency in the past year alone. A two year old in Belluno was hospitalized for severe malnutrition, including calcium and B12 deficiency. A three year old girl in Genova had to be resuscitated after she was hospitalized, once again, for a severe B12 deficiency. I personally know someone who’s child almost died from a B12 deficiency. Of course, veganism is not the only kind of diet that can lead to such a severe impact on the health of children, but it is certainly something that is causing a lot of talk in Italy, given that the vegan fad is such a new arrival to the country.
So, here’s what I think about it. I have a controversial statement to make on the topic. As hard as it may seem to accept, the fact of the matter is, veganism is not the ultimate healthy diet. I’ll say it again.
Veganism is not the healthiest diet for humans
Of course, not all children who are raised vegan will end up in the hospital. It is possible to be healthy and be vegan. However that is the point that needs to be stressed: it is possible. The biggest problem at the moment is that veganism is sold to many people as the ultimate in healthy living. It is not. The fact is, human beings are not meant to be vegan. It is very difficult to meet your daily calcium and iron requirements on a vegan diet, and it is impossible to meet your daily B12 requirements, as B12 is only found in animal products. If you choose to be vegan for ethical or environmental reasons, and you know this, you can take supplements or eat artificially fortified foods, and you’ll be fine. But you have to know this. The people who peddle veganism as the “most natural” and “best” diet for humans are peddling woo, plain and simple, and some dangerous woo at that. As much as I hate to agree with anyone in Forza Italia, B12 is a critical nutrient, and is essential to cognitive development. Depriving babies and small children of this nutrient can have catastrophic effects on their development. If you are a smart parent, and know how to feed your kids, you can make sure that they receive all of their nutrients without feeding them meat or fish. But you can’t buy into the bullshit that says that human beings were always meant to be vegan and you don’t have to worry about supplements or nutrients to be healthy so long as you eat vegetables and tofu.
As for the law, I think it is a very murky one. While I agree that child abuse (and I think that malnourishing your child to the point of being hospitalized does count as child abuse) should be punishable by law, I think that this law was born more out of a vendetta against veganism than out of a genuine attempt to protect children. We have also talked about how much intent matters in, for example, prosecuting parents whose child died because they were not vaccinated and were not brought to a hospital immediately when they became sick, and there was a general consensus here that, if parents cause their children to die, “I was a stupid idiot and bought into woo” is not a good enough defense. Having said that, the proposed law is a little too vague for my tastes, focusing on beliefs rather than consequences. There is the mention of imposing a diet on children that is lacking in essential nutrients: how do you define this? Do you take supplements into account? Do you wait for the consequences of malnutrition to present themselves? If so, how severe do they have to be? If not, how “deficient” does the diet have to be? Most people fail to hit this or that daily requirement of some nutrient in their daily lives, and usually are told by their doctors to eat more bananas or eat more dairy to compensate for it. Would a parent who brings their kid to the pediatrician who comes up short on their potassium levels be subjected to an official inquiry, with possible jail time at the end, even if their child is not yet affected by their low potassium levels? The answer to that question is probably no, and that this law will be used to target specific people with specific ideologies, like vegans.
So, all in all, I’m against this specific law. However, a law addressing the current problem with malnourishment in children is not a bad idea. Just as I think that parents should not have a choice in whether or not to vaccinate their kids (unless they have a very good medical reason not to do so), I don’t think parents should be allowed to starve their kids either. I would also combine such a law with an aggressive educational campaign, one that informs parents of the potential pitfalls of raising their children vegan, but if they still want to, here’s how to do it safely.
So, there you have it. My thoughts on veganism. Perhaps, this being FtB and not YouTube or Facebook, I might be spared the lengthy fight in the comments about human evolution and nutrition. But, if it does happen, bring it on. I’ve had this discussion many, many times.