Should Parents Go to Jail for Feeding Kids a Vegan Diet? An Italian Lawmaker Says Yes

Is it possible that some kids are eating too many veggies?

Italians are famous for their strong feelings about food—but is one lawmaker taking things a little too far?

Reuters is reporting that Elvira Savino of the Italian parliament is proposing a law that would make it a crime for parents to feed their children “a diet devoid of elements essential for healthy and balanced growth.” Under her proposed law, parents found guilty of feeding kids under the age of 16 a vegan diet could get a year of jail time, and up to seven years in prison if the child gets sick or dies.

The law doesn't come totally out of the blue: The legislation proposed by Savino, who has a seven-year-old (and who claims her diet involves only "a little meat"), comes in the wake of recent incidents in Italy involving vegan kids. A one-year-old fed a vegan diet was hospitalized in Milan for having the weight of a three-month-old infant; last year a dad in Italy sued his ex-wife for malnourishing their 12-year-old vegan son, as Reuters reports. 

But is a vegan diet actually bad for kids? “My own son’s diet was that of a vegetarian due to pickiness,” Laura Cipullo, a registered dietitian based in New York City, told The Feast. She added, "While a plant-based diet is healthy, any black and white restriction can be too rigid, cause nutritional deficiencies, and/or result in food obsessions. When getting more restrictive by choosing a vegan diet, one must be very strategic."

Because vegan diets—which focus on foods like fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, grains, legumes, dried fruit and seaweed— leave out meat, dairy, eggs and seafood, Cipullo explains that they have pros and cons: "One tends to eat a higher than average fruit, vegetable and fiber intake, with limited or no processed foods; however this rigid restriction can lead to many nutritional deficiencies." 

Can vegans avoid those deficiencies simply by being careful about the balance of foods they feed their kids? “While I obviously agree that a diet devoid of elements essential for healthy and balanced growth should be strongly discouraged," as Julie Morris, a vegan chef and author of the upcoming Superfood Soups, told The Feast, the malnutrition risk that inspired the proposed legislation has "absolutely nothing to do with veganism in particular.” 

A healthy diet for a child is only as good as the nutrients it contains, she noted. “Fortunately, a balanced whole food, plant-based diet is truly abundant in all macro- and micro-nutrients (yes, including calcium, iron, protein, omega-3's and fortified vitamin B-12), and helps encourage energy, growth, immunity and longevity," according to Morris.

"Perhaps a better focus for this law would be to discourage the kind of standard diets that promote malnutrition and illness through a copious dependency on heavily processed and refined foods, packed with sugar, full of empty calories, riddled with hormones and heavy metals, and laced with pesticides and chemicals," she added. "Trust me, it's not the kale salad that's the bad guy in this scenario."

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