Belgium's Royal Academy of Medicine recommended last week that children, teens, pregnant women, and nursing mothers do not follow a vegan diet.
An estimated 3% of Belgian children follow this type of vegetarianism that excludes meat, eggs, dairy products, and all other animal-derived ingredients, according to the academy's statement. The eating plan is "restrictive," creates "unavoidable" nutritional shortcomings and, if not properly monitored, could lead to deficiencies and stunted development, the academy said.
The medical opinion was requested by a representative of a national human rights organization, who sought guidance for pediatricians and other health care workers. The Royal Academy of Medicine functions as an advisory agency for Belgium's government institutions.
Dr. Georges Casimir, a pediatrician at Queen Fabiola Children's Hospital and head of the commission appointed by the academy to study the issue of veganism, discouraged the diet for children and pregnant women due to the possibility of "irreversible" harms. A potential health issue caused by a vegan diet is a lack of sufficient proteins and essential fatty acids for the developing brain.
Vitamins, including essential ingredients such as D and B12, calcium or even trace elements and nutrients essential for proper development are "absent from this diet," according to a statement from Casimir.
Isabelle Thiebaut, a co-author of the opinion and president of a European organization for dieticians, said that it is important to explain to parents about "weight-loss and psychomotor delays, undernutrition, anemia" and other possible nutritional shortfalls caused by a vegan diet for children. If parents do not follow the new recommendation, children who continue to follow a vegan diet should receive supplements, medical follow-up and regular blood tests, according to the academy.
Not everyone agrees with the academy's statement.
The British Dietetic Association stated that "well-planned plant-based, vegan-friendly diets can be devised to support healthy living at every age and life-stage." Great Britain has about 600,000 vegans, roughly 1.2% of the population in 2018, according to the nonprofit Vegan Society.
The same opinion is maintained across the pond.
"Appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases," according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a US organization for nutrition professionals. "These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes."
The organization's position paper also states that vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and obesity.
A small group of vegetarians coined the term "vegan" in 1944, according to the Vegan Society. A recent study that explored the impact of different diets suggests that global adoption of a vegan diet would avoid 8.1 million deaths per year by 2050.