Should a government be able to tell parents what to feed their infants? Some Italian lawmakers think so.
A newly proposed bill in Italy could penalize parents who raise their children on an "inadequate" vegan diet with up to a year in prison (or two years in the case of children under 3 years old), Metro U.K. reported. Further, should a child under 16 suffer an illness or personal injury as a result of their diet, their guardians could be sentenced to up to four years in prison.
The push for the legislation comes after several reported cases of children in Italy falling ill from poor diet and lack of nutrients.
In one such case, a 14-month-old baby was hospitalized in Milan for a dangerously low weight and low calcium levels, the Washington Post reported in July. The parents, it turned out, had allegedly kept their child on an all-vegan diet, without providing dietary supplements to make up for missed nutrients.
A month earlier, a 2-year-old girl spent days in intensive care in a hospital in Genoa. Doctors said she was suffering from insufficient levels of hemoglobin and vitamin deficiencies, the Local reported. "[The child's] health problems are thought to be linked to her vegan diet," the paper wrote. "[H]er parents have both been vegans for several years and the child was breastfed by her mother before being raised on the same diet, avoiding both meat and products with animal origins."
Elvira Savino, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia political party, is a main supporter of the bill.
"For some years the belief has been spreading in Italy that a vegetarian diet, even in the rigid form of a vegan diet, results in significant health benefits," Savino said, as reported by Metro U.K. "There is no objection if the person making this choice is an informed adult. A problem arises when children are involved."
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Sustaining a vegan diet can be done healthfully, but just as with any diet, what a person shoves down their gullet matters. "Someone living purely on ready salted crisps or chips, for example, would be technically following a vegan diet, but it would in no way be healthy," registered dietitian Mary Lynch wrote in a blog post.
While there are many benefits to going vegan — like the lowered risks for diabetes, heart disease and and some cancers, according to WebMD, a diet lacking in animal protein and dairy fails to deliver certain essential nutrients nutrients, like calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, Lynch wrote. She recommends vegans supplement their diets to ensure they get appropriate amounts.
Critics of this legislation argue that more pressing than tackling underage vegan diets is tackling the country's childhood obesity problem, the Independent reported.
Meanwhile, critics of the proposed law have argued there was a more pressing need for emphasis on tackling Italy's childhood obesity problem. A 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 30% of Italian children were obese. Only 1% of the entire Italian population is vegan, according to some reports.