'Long discredited myths': Belgian report blasted for critique of vegan diet

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

 ©GettyImages/YelenaYemchuk
©GettyImages/YelenaYemchuk

Related tags: vegan, Veganism, plant-based

A group of US dietitians and physicians has blasted a report from doctors in Belgium which stated that raising children on a vegan diet was "unethical" and should be a criminal offence.

A report from the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium​ said that veganism was "unsuitable for unborn children, children, teenagers, and pregnant and lactating women".

Professor Georges Casimir, who led the commission that wrote the report, said vegan parenting qualified as "non-assistance to a person in danger,"​ which is a criminal offence that carries a prison sentence of up to two years. About one in three Belgian children live in vegan families.

He said children needed "higher requirements for protein and essential fatty acids"​ and that these nutrients must be from animal products.

'Erroneous and misleading'

But in a letter to the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium,​ the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a US non-profit body of more than 12,000 doctors, ​stated the Belgium report was “poorly referenced” containing “l​ong-discredited myths about vegan diets”.​ It noted that key statements and conclusions in the report “were not based on scientific evidence and were both erroneous and misleading”.

“The Belgian academy’s misinformation could end up discouraging people from using plant-based diets to improve their health,” ​said the Physicians Committee’s Susan Levin. “Studies show that those eating vegan diets get more than enough protein, calcium, iron, and other nutrients. At the same time, just 3% of young Flemish adults are meeting daily recommendations for vegetables. Belgians across all age groups also fall short on fiber—an important nutrient found only in plants that can help control weight, lower cholesterol, and even prevent cancer. Health authorities should be encouraging more plant-based foods—not less.”

‘Vegan diets satisfy nutrient needs’

The Physicians Committee said vegan diets were widely known to have major health advantages. It cited a report from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (AND) —the world's largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals - which states that vegan diets are “appropriate, and they satisfy the nutrient needs and promote normal growth at all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”

The Belgian statement suggested that vegan diets were likely to be deficient in high-quality protein, vitamins D and B12, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, and DHA. In response, the Physicians Committee stated that people eating vegan diets received twice the protein their bodies needed and had average intakes above recommended values for vitamins B12 and D, calcium, omega-3 fats, iron, and zinc.

“The only essential nutrient that is not obtained reliably from food alone in a vegan dietary pattern is vitamin B12, which is made by neither plants nor animals, but by bacteria. It can easily be obtained in a dietary supplement,”​ said Levin.

The Physicians Committee claimed that children, teens, and pregnant women who followed vegetarian, including vegan, diets often ate more nutritious diets than their non-vegetarian peers.

Children eating these diets, it noted, “consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more fibre and vitamins, and they are less likely to be overweight or obese. Pregnancy outcomes, such as birth weight and pregnancy duration, are similar between vegetarian and non-vegetarian mothers”.

‘To deny children a healthier path is indefensible’

It claimed studies have also shown that plant-based diets can reduce the risk for diet-related health problems—including heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes—which are on the rise worldwide.

“It is clear that children in Europe, America, and the world over are at increasingly high risk of health problems related to a diet heavy in meat and dairy products​,” said Physicians Committee president Neal Barnard. “To deny children a healthier path is indefensible.”

The letter added: “Given the health benefits that come with consuming a vegan diet, the Académie Royale de Médecine de Belgique would be remiss to suggest anything that discourages such eating by its citizens, including parents for their babies and children.”

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