Making your kids go vegan can mean jail time in Belgium

Is he dreaming of burgers?
Is he dreaming of burgers?
Image: Reuters/Nigel Roddis
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On May 16, the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium issued an opinion that will make it possible to imprison parents who enforce a vegan diet on their children.

The academy determined that veganism for kids is “unethical” because it can lead to health problems for growing children, the Belgian publication Le Soir reports (link in French). The animal-product-free diet isn’t technically prohibited, and the ruling doesn’t necessarily equate veganism with child neglect. However, it will make it easier to prosecute parents who impose the strict diet and whose children have health problems.

Children can follow a vegan diet if it’s accompanied by medical supervision, regular blood tests, and vitamin supplements, Belgian pediatricians concluded. However, parents who don’t follow through on the additional requirements risk two years in prison, fines, and the possibility that their children will be removed from their homes if the kids do have associated health issues.

As draconian as that sounds, there are some grounds for the new legal opinion, Belgian experts argue. Bernard Devos, a regional government official responsible for children’s rights and protection in Brussels and the French-speaking region of Wallonia, requested a ruling on veganism’s health effects on kids after a number of deaths in schools, nurseries, and hospitals believed to be linked to the diet. The ruling will make it easier for officials to take legal action against parents in cases where poor health is associated with a vegan diet.

The opinion stands as a warning to parents, and because it is an official finding, the academy’s determination will make it easier to punish people whose children suffer from malnutrition as a result of the strict diet under a law that makes it a crime not to assist a person in danger. “We must explain to the parents before compelling them,” according to pediatrician Georges Casimir, who led the commission that wrote the report, “but we can no longer tolerate this endangerment.”

Casimir explained his conclusion, saying, “When we are children, the body manufactures brain cells. This implies higher requirements for protein and essential fatty acids. The body does not produce them, it must be brought in via animal proteins.” He argues that without these needed proteins children may experience stunted growth and psychomotor delays, malnutrition, and anemia. The pediatricians says that the effects of nutritional deficiencies can last a lifetime and cannot be reversed with a later change in diet.

However, opinions on this matter vary worldwide. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, is not opposed to vegan diets. “Although there have been case reports of children failing to thrive or developing cobalamin deficiency on vegan diets, these are rare exceptions,” the academy notes on its website. “Multiple experts have concluded independently that vegan diets can be followed safely by infants and children without compromise of nutrition or growth and with some notable health benefits.”

Similarly, New Zealand’s health ministry has addressed whether a vegetarian diet can be harmful to children. “It’s possible to have a healthy well-nourished infant or child who eats a vegetarian diet if care is taken,” it states. Although a vegetarian diet is less restrictive than veganism, this conclusion indicates that, with supervision and supplementation, diets that don’t rely heavily on animal-derived proteins aren’t necessarily a danger to kids.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals certainly took issue with the ruling in Belgium. Dawn Carr, director of vegan initiatives for PETA in the UK, told the Telegraph it was “a load of ignorant codswallop.” Carr argues that meat-based diets are the real danger to health, leading to hardened arteries in adulthood that cause stroke, brain aneurysms, and heart attacks. “A well-planned vegan diet is perfect for babies and children,” she said.