Parents in Italy who damage a child’s health by imposing a vegan diet on them face a year in prison, under a proposed law.

Elvira Savino, a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, wants jail sentences of up to a year given to parents who impose an inadequate diet on a child under 16. That could rise to four years if the malnutrition resulted in illness or permanent injury. The sentences could also be longer in cases of children under three.

The new draft legislation comes after four recent cases of malnourished vegan children who were removed from their parents in the past 18 months. One 14-month-old boy was so malnourished he was taken into hospital in Milan last month with severe calcium deficiency and was removed from his parents.

Ms Savino said that vegan diets could leave children deficient in zinc, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega-3.

“For some years the belief has been spreading in Italy that a vegetarian diet, even in the rigid form of a vegan diet, results in significant health benefits,” she wrote. “There can be no objection if the person making this choice is an informed adult. A problem arises when minors are involved.”

Not all health professionals view veganism with suspicion. Carla Tomasini, a paediatrician, told a website that promotes vegetarianism: “The vegan diet is based on the ancient Mediterranean diet . . . when milk and meat were in limited supply. Science has established that a vegan diet can be adopted without risk.”

A survey by the Eurispes research institute found that 7 per cent of the Italian population has opted for a vegetarian diet and a further 1 per cent have become vegans.