When an Italian baby was taken to hospital in Milan earlier this month by his grandparents, doctors there were shocked by the baby’s condition. At 14 months old, he weighed only slightly more than a 3-month-old, according to the Local Italy.
Upon further examination, a more harrowing picture began to take shape. The baby, whose parents allegedly kept him on a vegan diet without providing dietary supplements, was found to be severely malnourished, suffering from dangerously low calcium levels. Complicating matters, the baby had to undergo an emergency operation because of a congenital heart condition, which was aggravated by his low calcium levels.
The Local reported that hospital staff reported the case to social services and that the baby’s parents have lost the custodial rights to their child.
The case “forces us to reflect on uncommon feeding regimes,” Luca Bernardo, director of pediatrics at the hospital, told the Daily Telegraph.
He was careful not to take sides on the issue of what constitutes an optimal diet for a baby, however. “It is not a problem to choose different or unusual kinds of nutrition, and we certainly do not want to enter into a discussion of the merits of the decision. But since birth, the baby should have had support in this case with calcium and iron,” Bernardo said.
In recent months, Italy has seen multiple cases of children on vegan diets being hospitalized for malnutrition. In June, a 2-year-old girl was brought to a hospital in Genoa, where she spent several days in intensive care after doctors found her to be suffering from vitamin deficiencies and low levels of hemoglobin. And last June, an 11-month-old baby, whose parents are vegans, was treated for severe malnutrition at a hospital in Florence.
Similar cases have played out in other countries as well. In 2007, a vegan couple were given life sentences after their 6-week-old baby boy died of starvation in 2004. They had fed the baby a diet of mainly soy milk and apple juice, and a jury found the couple guilty of murder, manslaughter and cruelty to children. And in 2011, a French vegan couple were charged with child neglect after their 11-month-old baby died from vitamin deficiencies.
It’s not necessarily the case that veganism leads to malnourished young children, of course, as a 2007 op-ed in the New York Times titled “Death by Veganism” seemed to suggest, drawing a furious reaction from some vegans, including articles with such titles as “Veganism is Not Child Abuse.”
“Holy guacamole — can we all just stop the madness when it comes to ill-informed journalists claiming that vegan diets harm/kill babies?!” said a broadside in the Your Daily Vegan. “Every year or so, an article enters the world with inflammatory headlines and content about how dangerous a vegan diet can be for infants and children.”
As an article in the Spectator last year argued, it isn’t veganism that harms children — it’s neglectful parenting. Veganism, if done right, can give kids all the nutrients they need for healthy growth, experts say.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees that “well-planned vegetarian and eating patterns are healthy for infants and toddlers,” according to its publication, “Eat Right.” For breast-feeding mothers and for infants who don’t consume milk products and eggs, it recommends supplements or fortified foods for vitamins B12, vitamin D, calcium and iron and advises parents to consult a dietitian.
Britain’s National Health Service makes similar recommendations.
“It’s not a problem if parents want to raise their children using alternative or even unusual diets,” the hospital’s head pediatrician told the Corriere, the Local reported.
“But care needs to be taken to make up for any nutritional shortfalls using supplements. For example, the 1-year-old child we are treating should have been taking iron and calcium supplements.”
As Slate’s parenting advice columnist put it: “Can kids be vegan and be healthy? Of course they can. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are undoubtedly good for growing bodies, and research even suggests an association between veganism and a reduced risk for cancer.”
But there’s a caveat: Veganism requires a lot of extra work. Parents and caregivers, the Slate columnist writes, “have to ensure that their children are getting the calories and wide variety of nutrients they need — not a small feat when dealing with typically fussy, food-neophobic kids.”