Last month, an Italian MP proposed making the vegan diet a crime if it’s imposed on a child. The move comes after several recent cases of malnourished children reportedly raised on a vegan diet in Italy. As a vegan and a parent raising a vegan toddler, the news broke my heart—mainly for the children who suffered—but it also inflamed frustration over a still-broken food system and the misdirected blame on veganism.
In just a few days, my daughter will turn three. She was vegan at conception, in utero, and has been since taking her first breath in this world (and for anyone who thinks vegans don’t breastfeed, we did it until she was 18 months).
When I was a teenager, I made the conscious decision to give up eating animal products for ethical reasons. Back then, more than two decades ago, we barely knew about the health benefits of a vegan diet, and we surely didn’t know much about the environmental impact of raising animals for food. The vegan diet was often dismissed as a cry for attention, an unsustainable phase no one could possibly commit to.
It was a struggle. Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, was certainly not vegan food central. I needed some instructions, some basic rules for survival, and took a job working at a health food store café so that I could learn to cook and feed myself properly--I was that committed to sticking with it.
And here’s the thing: The vegan diet is not inherently dangerous. Most cultures around the world (except for a few) survived mostly on plants for most of human history. It wasn’t until about 7,500 years ago that humans even started to drink milk. We ate meat, yes, but not three times a day every day and certainly not in the processed, genetically modified, horrifically tortured ways animals are raised for food today. What’s most important about how we ate for most of human history is that we survived because of nutrient density in the soil—vitamins, minerals, and microbes that help us meet, say, our daily B12 quota. Modern soil is to its ancestors what our modern diet is to ours—it’s a mostly lacking processed and compromised facsimile. And it’s only going to get worse as our planet warms.
An imbalanced vegan diet today may lead to certain nutrient deficiencies, but so do conventional diets—and I would argue that they’re even more harmful, more deficient than plant-based diets.
Veganism, for all its trendiness and scientific solidity, is still shunted, misunderstood, even mocked by mainstream media, food companies, scientists, and without a doubt, ignorant family members (as any vegan in a family of nonvegans can tell you). When not taken seriously, despite a growing interest (in just the UK, the vegan diet exploded in the last decade by more than 360 percent) people are left to fend for themselves. And granted, a parent should do anything and everything necessary to ensure their children’s health—but doesn't that rule apply to every type of diet?
If vegan parents are criminals, then what about the parents of obese children or those who develop type-2 diabetes before they can even spell it? Recent data have shown a growing number of vitamin and mineral deficiencies prevalent in obese people. Earlier this week, a study revealed coordinated efforts by the sugar industry to deceive Americans into eating more sugar even despite its health risks—efforts that led to the widespread belief that fat, not sugar, was the real culprit. That intentional fraud may have cost countless people years, if not decades of life, because as we now know, certain fats are vital to human health.
As a parent, there is no greater fear than failing your child. And perhaps no greater task than feeding them. Our daughter’s appetite is voracious—and even though I love cooking, coordinating three meals and just as many snacks every day is no small feat. Honestly, it’s all-consuming. I grocery shop several times per week; spend hours each week in the kitchen preparing healthy, balanced meals; and hours more stain-removing the meals from her clothes, from our furniture, from her chubby cheeks.
But this is what we do. This is the challenge and the bliss of parenting. And that’s not to say we must all come to parenting with the same level of enthusiasm or the same commitments. But any poor parenting should be treated equally—whether it’s a poor diet, neglect, or abuse. But to single out an entire diet as the culprit? Isn't that a bit like banning your child from all television ever just because you can't stand Elmo?
Last week, we were sent a video of our daughter at preschool. The teacher was singing a song and encouraging the kids to join in. None did. It’s only the second week of school and some of the kids aren’t yet three. On top of that, they’re all learning a new language as well. No doubt it’s a lot to take in. But then, all of a sudden, just after the teacher finished, my daughter starts to sing the song at the top of her lungs, with confidence, with pride, with what seemed to be pure joy. All by herself. It's the kind of moment that makes a mama tear up. I watched the video at least five times. But that's our daughter-- she’s not sickly or lacking; she's creative, bright, and curious. She's silly and sweet, and according to her pediatrician, as healthy as they come.
Here in the U.S., we have a pediatrician who supports our decision to raise our daughter on a vegan diet. Our daughter is a strong and healthy eater, and yes, we supplement with vitamins. But as a parent of a toddler, no matter what I feed her, I would supplement. Why? Because the taste for vegetables—where so many nutrients come from--even with all of the exposure we’ve offered our child since she was a baby, doesn’t truly develop until later in life. If given a choice between noodles, and well, anything else, my daughter will choose noodles every single time. Maybe a strawberry or a lentil every once in a while for good measure. But as most parents can attest, kids are generally lousy eaters. They gravitate toward carbs, fat, and protein—because these are the primary foods they need to grow—and all of which are abundant on a balanced vegan diet.
Elvira Savino, of the centre-right party Forza Italia, and who proposed the legislation against veganism, said the rule is important to protect children from "radicalized" parents who impose their restrictive diets on them.
I began showing an inclination toward veganism as a very young child—I hated butter, cheese, and chicken legs so much I would rather be punished than eat them. Often times I was. One could argue that any diet is an imposition—I certainly felt imposed upon to eat foods that made my stomach turn. How many people today were raised on processed, microwaveable junk food only to join the growing interest in organic, healthy foods? And yes, there are even people who were raised as vegans that later choose to eat meat.
Shouldn't parents be supported in their efforts to raise a child, even if it's unconventionally? Parenting is as much about safety and protection as it is about individuality and preferences. It's art as much as it's science. And if we're to point a finger at any real threat to children, at least here in the U.S., it's guns much more so than it's the absence of hamburgers.
And where is the responsibility of our medical systems and our governments to become properly educated on the challenges of every diet—not just conventional diets—and how to support them properly? With sales of plant-based foods on the rise in every category, it’s clear interest in veganism is not going away anytime soon—certainly not in our home.
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