Vegan Parenting and an Italian Controversy

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.


  1. says

    This reminded me of an argument I had with an former teacher of mine, who was a very militant vegan. I remember a moment in the discussion where he said he didn’t eat potatoes or carrots, cause that would be the death of the plant. I don’t believe that that is a thing with most vegans but holy shit.

    Working around a limited diet is freaking hard enough. Further limiting your diet out of some idiotic half-baked ideology is downright dangerous. I hope that dude is never given the ability to enforce his manic dietary habits on a child.

    • inquisitiveraven says

      The bit about not causing the the death of a plant isn’t standard veganism, but it does sound like Jainism, a religion from India. Harvesting potatoes doesn’t kill the plant, but Jains don’t eat them because of the likelihood of killing soil dwelling organisms in the process of digging them up.

  2. anat says

    I was found to be B12 deficient despite not being vegan (no symptoms, but was part of a study). I take a methylated B12 supplement which works well. Not everyone incorporates B12 into their metabolism efficiently in its unmethylated form. Had I been vegan my deficiency would have been attributed to that.

    Humanity as a whole will probably be forced to reduce reliance on animal-sourced foods for environmental reasons in a generation or two. It would be a good idea if we prepared for that. The experience of vegans will be very helpful there.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      No symptoms: that’s the crucial difference in your case. Many people have some deficiency, either because they don’t eat certain foods enough or, as in your case, they don’t absorb the nutrients very well. The deficiencies that I’m talking about here, and the ones that are of concern in Italy, are deficiencies that are so extreme that the children require many days, if not weeks in the hospital to recover. In the case of the person I know first hand, her baby was not gaining any weight, was not responsive, and was clearly not developing properly (he wouldn’t laugh, focus on his parents, respond to stimuli etc). Her husband refused to accept that this was due to their veganism, and kept bringing them to different pediatricians in an attempt to find one who agreed with him, until finally the 6th one told them point blank that their child would be dead in 2 months if they didn’t start feeding him a special formula immediately. Luckily she listened, and he finally started to grow. Who knows what long term cognitive damage was done in the meantime.
      We will have to reduce our reliance on animal-based food, I agree, but that is an entirely different matter.

  3. enkidu says

    Thank you for that short snippet of Italian, which I am entirely chuffed to find I can still read with 90% comprehension. (No cheating I promise)
    The human diet will never be entirely vegan for many reasons, whether it is “meat in a vat”, or the entirely rational economic reason that quite large bits of the Earth are somewhat precipitous, making agriculture prohibitively expensive but pastoralism competitive.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    I agree that the law is pretty vague, since it might be used to penalize vegans who are extremely careful to get their kids B12, while at the same time letting off scot-free the parents whose kids eat nothing but chips and soda and hamburgers and never touch a green vegetable in their lives and end up with scurvy.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      True, though to be fair, that is extremely rare in Italy. While the consumption of processed foods is definitely higher today than it was when I was growing up, there are still very few kids in Italy who never find vegetables on their plates. That’s the primary reason the concept of passing a law regarding child nutrition is coming up now, with veganism, rather than earlier with regards to junk food.

  5. A. Noyd says

    Yeah, Japan is often touted as having the healthiest diet in the world, but few people here avoid meat or other animal proteins. If there is any truth to the claim, it’s probably more to do with the broad variety of foods eaten, both in general* and per meal. Even with modernization of the traditional diet, there’s still a large amount of variation in what you’ll find on one plate.**

    But, of course, because of the reputation for healthy eating and the fact that tofu is a staple here, a lot of other Westerners seem to think that, besides sushi, Japanese food is vegetarian in nature. I’ve run into a number of vegetarians and vegans who came to Japan unprepared for the ubiquity of meat, fish and eggs. Really, you’ll find tofu mixed in with any other kind of protein source imaginable, and even dishes that are “only” vegetables are often seasoned by boiling them in fish broth.
    * For instance, I just cooked with jute leaves for the first time yesterday since they were cheap at the grocery store. I was not tempted to try the whale sashimi, though.
    ** So to speak. Food is generally served in an array of separate dishes.

    • A. Noyd says

      Oh yeah, and as a side effect of the broad-variety-within-a-meal tradition, the frozen food industry offers a lot of things you can make tiny portions of to serve as part of a larger meal. Like single chicken fingers with cheese and spinach sauce or two-bite-sized cubes of tempura squid or corn and cream croquettes. They’re not generally healthy foods, but the fact that you can indulge without making an entire meal of them is awesome.

  6. says

    I agree that while it’s definitely possible to raise a healthy vegan child, it’s also much easier to go critically wrong with it.
    Though in a very body-centric and fat-shaming world I’d be more concerned about policing parents whose kids are overweight.*

    *Weight and health and healthy diets only have a vague correlation.

  7. chigau (違う) says

    A. Noyd
    Quite a long time ago (maybe 15 years) I was watching a food show on Japanese TV.
    They were eating chicken sashimi.
    I still haven’t gotten over it.

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