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Couple Loses Custody of Malnourished Baby After Feeding Him Vegan Diet

An Italian couple have lost custody of a 14-month-old child after he was hospitalized with severe malnutrition. We ask experts whether it’s possible to raise a healthy baby on a vegan diet.

by Sirin Kale
Jul 11 2016, 12:55pm

Photo by Jayme Burrows via Stocksy

A vegan couple in Italy has lost custody of their 14-month-old son after the baby was taken to hospital by concerned grandparents and found to be suffering from severe malnutrition.

The baby weighed the same as the average three-month-old, Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reports. Doctors at Fatebenfratelli Hospital in Milan described the baby's calcium's levels as "the minimum needed to survive." The child was also found to suffer from a congenital heart condition, unrelated to but exacerbated by his calcium deficiency, and underwent emergency surgery.

Hospital workers informed social services after his parents refused to adapt the child's vegan diet at the request of doctors. The child has now been taken into protective custody while the authorities decide whether to place him with his grandparents, or into foster care.

A 2011 Eurispes study puts the number of vegetarians at 12 percent of the population—the highest in the European Union—with 600,000 people adhering to a vegan diet. But a number of recent high-profile cases in Italy have galvanized public attention around the issue of feeding children vegan diets.

Read more: Is Veganism Stupid?

In Genoa, a two-year-old girl was hospitalized for vitamin deficiencies caused by her parents' vegan diet, although she was allowed to remain with her parents. In Bergamo, a row between divorced parents ended up in court after the father contested the mother's decision to feed their son a macrobiotic diet. The court mandated that the mother cook her son meat at least once a week: the dad was ordered to feed him meat no more than twice at the weekends.

"It is possible to feed a baby a vegan diet, but you need to plan carefully to ensure the baby is getting enough nutrients of concern," advises Dr. Lucy Chambers, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. "The risks of nutrient deficiencies are much higher [on a vegan diet]. It is possible to feed a baby a healthy, balanced diet that is also vegan, but you need to be very well informed."

Fatebenfratelli Hospital in Milan, where the baby was treated. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Any diet that eliminates certain foods is more likely to lead to nutrient deficiencies unless precautions are taken. "We advise breast milk for all babies until six months of age. After that, as you start weaning the baby onto solid foods, you need to focus on plenty of fruits and vegetables, foods rich in iron—such as dark green leafy vegetables, pulses, bread, protein-rich foods such as lentils and beans, and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals or soya drinks."

Particular care needs to be taken to make sure vegan babies are getting enough vitamin B-12, which mostly comes from animal foods, and calcium, which is commonly found in dairy. Dr. Chambers recommends fortified milk such as oat milk or soya milk, and tofu or sesame seeds. Like adults, a happy vegan baby is a baby who is getting enough calories, so you want to make sure you're feeding them high-energy foods such as nuts and the hallowed avocado.

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Vegan Society spokesperson Jimmy Pierson told Broadly that media reports around the case were "inflammatory and misleading," emphasizing the thousands of cases of malnutrition in the UK each year that aren't linked to veganism.

"The problem in this case, as with every case of malnutrition, was a shortage of calories and nutrients—absolutely nothing inherently to do with the vegan diet, which can provide all the essential nutrients for optimal health at any age or life stage including infancy and childhood."