Dr. T.J. Gold, a pediatrician in Brooklyn, counts among her patients about five families whose parents are raising their kids on raw vegan diets -- vegan regimes involving fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and not much else.
Some of those children were anemic, she told The New York Times, even though their parents were trying to supplement their diets with vitamins.
“If you have to supplement something for children in order to do it, is that really the right diet for them?” Gold asks.
Other children pay a social price for their diets. Sitting at a table during lunch period when everyone else is eating classic lunchmeat sandwiches and potato chips can make kids feel like the odd child out.
“We’re seeing a lot of anxiety in these kids,” Cynthia Bulik, the director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina, told The New York Times. “They go to birthday parties, and if it’s not a granola cake, they feel like they can’t eat it. The culture has led both them and their parents to take the public health messages to an extreme.”
But in Italy, those things could be minor worries for vegan kids and their parents if some politicians get their way.
Elvira Savino, a parliamentary member of center-right party Forza Italia, is pushing legislation that could send "negligent parents" to prison for two years if they're raising kids with a "diet lacking essential elements for an healthy growth," The Telegraph reported.
Savino says she's worried about "radicalized parents" forcing their children to adhere to diets that aren't appropriate for them, and she says it's a growing problem in Italy.
Some diets, Savino points out, can lead to severe deficiencies in iron, zinc and vitamin B-12, which can cause a range of neurological, physiological and developmental problems in growing children. Because those deficiencies hamper development at critical stages, the negative effects could be permanent.
The effort to hold parents accountable for what they feed their kids isn't new. In June, a 2-year-old girl named Chiara, from Genoa, was placed in the resuscitation unit in intensive care after doctors found her "starved" by her strict vegan diet.
Chiara was underweight, sluggish and had a severe vitamin B-12 deficiency, according to The Times.
That incident followed two other high-profile cases of vegan toddlers in poor health in Italy, and in July, a 14-month-old baby from Milan was hospitalized with a severe calcium deficiency.
The child, who was raised on a "strict vegan diet," was severely malnourished, to the point where he weighed about the same as a healthy 3-month-old child. The boy's grandparents were the ones who rushed him to the hospital, and the parents eventually lost custody, according to Fox News.
Doctors had to perform emergency surgery on the toddler because a severe calcium deficiency had aggravated a congenital heart condition.
Still, the hospital's director of pediatrics chose his words carefully when asked about the case, saying it "forces us to reflect on uncommon feeding regimes, even if in this case it was complicated by a cardiac malformation."
“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," Dr. Luca Bernardo told The Telegraph. "But since birth, the baby should have had support in this case with calcium and iron."
It's a delicate situation, for sure. Blasting the parents in the media might make doctors feel better after witnessing the suffering malnourished children endure, but that's more likely to make vegan parents defensive instead of receptive.
No one believes these parents are intentionally inflicting harm on their children. They love their kids, which is why they're trying to start healthy eating habits from the beginning.
But a child's digestive system isn't able “to pull the nutrients out of raw foods as effectively as an adult’s,” Dr. Benjamin Kligler, a Manhattan pediatrician, told The New York Times.
The issue is that these parents are misguided and misinformed, and probably don't realize the danger they're putting their kids in.
But is prison time the right answer? Probably not.
The government -- any government, in any country -- really shouldn't get into the practice of policing what parents put on the dinner table.
Authorities in the medical community need to reach out to parents and educate them. As Bernardo did, they have to choose their words carefully while sending an unambiguous message that certain raw and vegan diets might not be appropriate for kids, and may need to be supplemented with vitamins and minerals.
And if authorities feel parents need to know there are consequences for nutritional negligence, prison time probably isn't the most effective deterrent -- the prospect of losing custody of a child should be more than enough to get those parents to wake up.