Vegan Children: A lifestyle choice under social scrutiny

By Alexandra Refenes

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There is a certain kind of appeal that surrounds veganism as an alternative lifestyle choice. Excluding the consumption and use of all animal products, this plant-based diet appears to be growing exponentially in popularity. Not only does it offer a healthier lifestyle alternative, veganism is also characterized by its ethical regard for animals and a cleaner world.

Click here for more information about veganism from The Vegan Society.

However, current media representations have placed this lifestyle under intense scrutiny following a number of worldwide cases where babies raised on a vegan diet have been hospitalized due to malnourishment. Is it safe to raise a BABY as a vegan? Experts reveal whether the plant-based diet can be healthy for young children by Stephen Matthews, An Italian baby raised on a vegan diet is hospitalized for severe malnutrition and removed from parents by Mary Hui, Italian baby kept on vegan diet taken into care after being found malnourished by Josephine McKenna and a Vegan mum who allegedly fed baby only fruits and nuts charged published by news.com.au, offer different perspectives regarding this societal issue.

The general consensus portrayed by news stories in the media is that veganism for children is unethical. Sparking moral debate, media articles question parenting skills and raise concerns about the absent intake of key nutrients that are essential for infant growth and development. Amongst these negative representations, however, there are few opinions that advocate a vegan diet. Some people argue that veganism is not the problem; it is neglect that leads to child malnourishment. Thus the contentious issue of vegan children remains.

In the first article Stephen Matthews offers insight into both perspectives, which positions the reader to consider either side of the argument. At first, Matthews alludes to the negative representation of a mother from Pennsylvania who “was charged with endangerment for feeding her baby nothing but a small amount of nuts and berries”. He couples this with the recent court decision in Italy where feeding children a vegan diet under the age of 16 has been criminalised “after a number of vegan babies were hospitalized for malnourishment”. By appealing to comparison, Matthews is propagating the generalized stigma, which surrounds vegan children. In most media stories, vegan children are perceived as victims whilst their parents are reviewed as unfit guardians. These are assumed representations that have significantly influenced societal opinions regarding the administration of vegan diets for children.

In contrast to this view, Matthews additionally discusses how the media can often create unfair representations in relation to this social issue. Drawing upon the authorial opinion of nutritionist Reed Mangels from Massachusetts, news stories that describe vegan children as malnourished “can be stressful for parents who have done their homework and have to defend themselves time and time again”. Further inclusion of academic opinion from The American Academy of Pediatrics promotes veganism for children by describing how, with dietary planning and research, “it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans”. The use of the word possible creates hope for veganism as a positive lifestyle choice for young children. By inviting the reader to consider the authorial opinion of academic sources, Matthews is implicitly influencing his readers to consider other viewpoints. This is a common technique that many authors appear to use through out various media representations in order to remain neutral in their opinion. By including both sides of the argument, this allows the reader to reach their own conclusion about the social issue of vegan children. Although many articles predominately oppose vegan diets for children, they still offer debate that perhaps there are other plausible causes, which could lead to malnourishment. However, the general consensus represented by the media still remains that this lifestyle choice inhibits the welfare of children.

Author Mary Hui from The Washington Post offers further insight into the debate of vegan children in society. Reporting on the hospitalization of a 14-month-old baby from Italy, she writes how the infant was found severely malnourished after being raised on a vegan diet.

“The baby, whose parents allegedly kept him on a vegan diet without providing dietary supplements, was found severely malnourished, suffering from dangerously low calcium levels. Complicating matters, the baby had to undergo an emergency operation because of a congenital hear condition, which was aggravated by his low calcium levels”.

Appealing to emotion, Hui includes words and phrases such as shocked, harrowing, suffering and dangerously low to invoke audience reaction. Painting a negative picture, these linguistic devices used by Hui position the reader to oppose veganism as a dietary option for young children.

The inclusion of an authorial voice in the above statement also creates a relation between the reader and author. Hui asserts her opinion through descriptive language, which essentially influences the reader to share a similar view. Through the use of transitive analysis, this is a passive clause that describes the baby as the affected, the parents as the agent and malnourishment as the process. By including this analytical perspective, Hui is promoting the generalized view that once again, children fall victim veganism as a result of poor decision-making from their parents.

Despite these negative viewpoints, Hui additionally alludes to social misconceptions that surround veganism for children. ‘“Holy guacamole – can we all just stop the madness when it comes to ill-informed journalists claiming that vegan diets harm/kills 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’” she includes.

The explicit language used in this quote attests to the moral and ethical debate that surrounds this issue in society. The use of the phrase can we all also creates a relation between the text and the reader by positioning them with majority of society who seem to oppose vegan diets for children. By referring to articles with inflammatory headlines and content about how dangerous veganism can be for children, Hui highlighting the general view of media representations. The media tends to promote negative perceptions of this social issue, which positions members of society to disagree with this lifestyle choice.

Furthermore, Hui juxtaposes negative perceptions of vegan diets for children by appealing to authority. By including a statement from The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, she seeks to promote what appears to be a minority view in the media – that veganism can be healthy for infants and toddlers. This invokes attitudinal assessment by positioning the reader to trust academic sources in relation to this debatable issue.

In a similar manner, Josephine McKenna from The Telegraph also reports on the Italian baby who was found malnourished as a result of a vegan diet. The association between these two stories illustrates the negative correlation between most news articles that are published by the media. By appealing to consequence, these articles illustrate that most cases of vegan children shared by the media communicate negative consequences, rather than positive impacts of this lifestyle choice.

Negative media representations appear to scrutinise the skills of vegan parents, which has essentially become a major issue in society. Including the authorial opinion of Luca Berndardo, director of paediatrics at Milan hospital, McKenna alludes to the idea that veganism does not offer sufficient nutrient intake for young children. In her article, she describes the Italian baby as “severely malnourished with calcium levels barely adequate to survive”. A quote Bernardo suggests that from the moment of birth, the young child “should have had support in this case with calcium and iron levels”.

This is another societal issue that surrounds vegan children. According to The Youngest Vegetarians, “key nutrients whose adequacy should be monitored in vegetarian/vegan diets include vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc (Mangels, 2012, pg. 8)”. However, many media representations communicate that veganism does not offer such nutrients to young children, which are optimal for growth and development.

McKenna further alludes to comparison by referencing other vegan cases that resulted in negative consequences. “It is not the first time that vegan diets have provoked alarm in Italy. Four children have been hospitalized within the last 18 months and a malnourished toddler spent several days in intensive care in a Genoa hospital last month”, she states. By including other cases of malnourished vegan children, the author is highlighting the severity of this situation. This essentially provides the viewer with substantive evidence that perhaps veganism for children should be disapproved.

News.com.au have additionally published a news article that shines a negative light on veganism as a lifestyle choice for young children. Drawing parallels with the first article composed by Matthews, this media text offers negative perceptions of the discussed social issue.

In accordance to court records, the estranged husband of Elizabeth Hawk became concerned after their son broke out in a rash as a suspected result from the baby’s strict diet. Police said that the mother, who had subjected her child to a vegan diet, had “had not fed the child enough for the baby to thrive”.

Representations of the mother through out the article and other similar news stories are severely negative. By including the opinion of a paediatrician who examined the child, this article sees the mother’s actions as “inhumane”. This particular description ignites emotional reaction in the reader and positions them to review all vegan parents in a negative manner. Media representations tend to label vegan parents as neglectful and incompetent, which seems to influence the establishment of societal views regarding this issue.

Court records, which describe the child as unable to ‘“crawl as a result of the malnourishment,’ which also left him developmentally delayed” are grim perceptions that influence the readers opinion of veganism for children.

In addition, the article also states, “Brandy described her sister-in-law’s views on nutrition as extreme, adding: “She was going to live on water and sunlight”.

This statement, which describes the eating habits of Elizabeth Hawk, is testament to majority of media representations that people regard about veganism. As a dietary choice that excludes all animal products, many people in society are under the assumption that veganism involves very little choice in terms of food sources.

Furthermore, Elizabeth Hawk was charged with endangering the welfare of her son after failing to provide him with sufficient food. The extremity of this case promotes societal judgement, as people continue to review veganism for children as a poor parental choice. The legal implications involved in this case also heighten negative connotations that media tend to attach to this societal issue.

Through the journalistic analysis of the articles above, it is evident that media representations of vegan children provoke inevitable public debate. The conclusions reached by each author are subject to personal opinion, which essentially influences the engaging reader. By comparing linguistic devices and the use of authorial opinions, it is clear that each text promotes varying perceptions of vegan children in their own way. Whilst the general consensus may regard veganism as a negative lifestyle for young children, there are still opinions that think otherwise. As this plant-based diet continues to grow in trend, the debate shall continue in relation to determining how young is too young for children to follow this strict diet.

References:

Matthews, S (2016) ‘Is it safe to raise a BABY as a vegan? Experts reveal whether the plant-based diet can be healthy for young children’, The Daily Mail Australia, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3858060/Raising-vegan-baby-Theres-right-way-wrong-way.html

Hui, M (2016) ‘An Italian baby raised on a vegan diet is hospitalized for severe malnutrition and removed from parents’ The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/07/11/italian-baby-fed-vegan-diet-hospitalized-for-malnutrition/

McKenna, J (2016) ‘Italian baby kept on vegan diet taken into care after being found malnourished’ The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/10/italian-baby-kept-on-vegan-diet-taken-into-care-after-being-foun/

Author unknown, (2016) ‘Vegan mum who allegedly fed baby only fruits and nuts charged’ news.com.au, http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/babies/vegan-mum-who-allegedly-fed-baby-only-fruits-and-nuts-charged/news-story/44dc79d095c0cdef8b8e5b3699578899

The Vegan Society, (2016) ‘Definition of veganism’, https://www.vegansociety.com

Mangels, R (2012) ‘The Youngest Vegetarians: Vegetarian Infants and Toddlers’ in Childhood Obesity and Nutrition, vol. 4, no. 1, pg. 8-20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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