The vegan diet reduces or completely omits the intake of several nutrients important for the brain. So, could the lack of these nutrients impact the ability of vegans to think?
In the 1880s, when Mahatma Gandhi was just a teenager, a meeting was to take place in the city of Rajkot, India, on the banks of the local river. Gandhi didn’t tell his parents where he was going, as discretion was essential. If his parents knew, they would never let him.
One of the world’s famous vegetarians and India’s future hero, didn’t plan to have a cucumber sandwich for dinner. For the first time in his life, Gandhi was planning to eat meat.
According to his biography, he had never seen meat before this day as he was raised as a strict Vaishnava Hindu. His picnic companion believed that meat makes you physically and mentally strong.
So, Gandhi braved the tough meat.
There’s something intuitive in the thought that avoiding meat is not good for our brains. Anthropologists have long discussed the type of food our ancestors have eaten, but many of them believe that there was plenty of brain-slurping and bone-crunching before these remarkable organs were evolved. Some scientists believe that meat is the food that made us human.
Intelligence is said to be expensive with the brain using 20% of a one’s daily calories despite accounting for only 2% of one’s body weight. Is there a better way to reap the wide range of amino acids, fats, minerals, and vitamins the brain requires than by eating animals which have already gathered or made them?
Even though it’s strange to imagine our ancestors were eating turnips instead of tuna, nowadays is different with around 375 million vegetarians in the world. Veganism has become one of the most popular millennial trends. The speed the trend grows is incredible – 600% growth was noted in the period between 2014 and 2017 only in the U.S. On the other hand, the diets that completely omit meat in India are mainstream ever since the sixth century BCE.
In the meantime, the nutritional gaps in meat-free diets have led to concerns that they may cause irreversible damage to the nervous system and stunt the development of the brain. According to the German Society for Nutrition, vegan diets are not recommended for children, adolescents, pregnant, or breastfeeding women. This was stated in 2016, but in 2018, the research was backed up by a review. Belgium parents that force a vegan diet to their children may earn a spell in prison.
However, if omitting meat had any real effect on people’s brains, we would’ve probably noticed by now. So, is it really harmful to our intelligence, or it’s just a fear of the unknown?
The best way to find out is to test randomly selected people how the omission of animal products from their diet will affect their brain. But, no study has done this by now.
The only study that approached this did the following. It involved 555 schoolchildren from Kenya, most of whom were already vegetarians because of their economic circumstances. They were given one of 3 different soups as a snack over 7 school terms – a soup with oil, a soup with milk, or a soup with meat- or no soup at all.
The schoolchildren were tested before and after to compare their intelligence. As a surprise, those who ate the soup with meat had a significant edge. It turned out, they outperformed all the other peers on a non-verbal reasoning test by the end of the research. Together with the children who ate a soup with oil every day, they had the best results on a test with arithmetic ability. Still, more research is needed to prove these effects, and if they will be the same in adults in other countries. However, the research raises the question of whether a vegan diet could hold someone back.
Plants or fungi don’t contain several important brain nutrients. Vitamin D3, B12, haem iron, omega-3, taurine, carnosine, and creatine can’t be found in animal products. They can, however, be synthesized in the laboratory or extracted from lichen, bacteria, and algae and added to supplements.
Other nutrients are present in vegan foods but only in tiny amounts. For example, to get the minimum daily amount of vitamin B6 from potatoes, you need to eat 750 grams or five cups worth of potatoes, which is not really possible.
Although our body is able to make some of these important nutrients from other ingredients, it’s usually not enough to make up for these nutrient omissions. It has been shown that vegans and vegetarians have lower amounts of the nutrients listed above. Sometimes, they are even deficient in these nutrients, and that’s normal.
The exact effect of these dietary cracks on the lives of vegans is still unclear. However, one recent study discovered something pretty unsettling.
The CEO of Think Healthy Group and food scientist Taylor Wallace said:
I think there are some real repercussions to the fact that plant-based diets are taking off. It’s not that plant-based is inherently bad, but I don’t think we’re educating people enough on, you know, the nutrients that are mostly derived from animal products.
Getting enough vitamin D12 is one of the biggest challenges for vegans as this vitamin is only found in meat, eggs, and other animal products. Other species get it from bacteria residing in their feces or digestive tracts. They either ingest it by eating their own feces or absorb it directly. Luckily, or not, this is not possible for people.
Here’s what happens if people don’t get enough of this vitamin. Vitamin B12 deficiency may cause life-altering consequences in children. Benton explains that ill-informed vegan parents have caused improper development of their children’s brains. There were children who slipped into a coma, and others who couldn’t smile or sit.
The level of vitamin B12 in one’s blood has been directly connected to one’s intelligence later in life. Scientists discovered that the brain of older people with lower B12 has 6 times more chances to shrink.
Still, lack of this vitamin is common in vegans. One UK study discovered that half of their vegan participants had a B12 deficiency. This problem is endemic in certain parts of India, mostly because of the popularity of diets that completely omit meat.
Iron is another nutrient that’s scarce in a vegan diet. Although it’s most commonly linked to blood, this nutrient plays a significant role in the development of brain and keeping it healthy throughout the entire life. For instance, a study conducted in 2017 discovered that taking iron supplements caused intellectual gains in young women. The women whose iron levels in blood increased by the end of the study had improved performance on a cognitive test for 5 to 7 times. Those who had an increased hemoglobin level had an improved processing speed.
Even though iron makes up 80% of the inner mass of our planet, it’s very easy to be deficient in it. Around 2 billion people in the world have an iron deficiency. Being vegan increases the risk even more because only animal proteins contain haem iron – the form of iron that is most readily absorbed by the human’s body. According to a German study, 40% of the vegan participants were getting less of this nutrient than the recommended daily amount.
Lack of iodine, folate, selenium, and vitamin D3 are other common deficiencies among vegans. Although our body can make vitamin D3 when we’re exposed to sunshine, it’s still not enough for the amount vegans miss from their diets. In periods when sun is weaker, especially during winter, people in the UK who eat meat have around 40% more of this vitamin in the blood than vegans.
Even though some of these nutrients can be obtained from supplements, others are extremely obscure, so vegans have probably never heard of them, let alone understand their importance and the risk of missing out.
For example, the amino acid taurine. It is most plentiful in our brain where it supports several crucial processes, including the regulation of many neurons. You can often find it added in caffeinated energy drinks, as it’s believed, though not confirmed, that taurine may provide an immediate cognitive boost.
The main food sources of taurine are seafood and meat, though some dairy products contain small amounts of the amino acid. According to the biomedical scientist at Florida Atlantic University, people have very limited capacity to make all the taurine they need, unlike some species.
That’s why vegans usually have low levels of taurine. But, the effects of this deficiency are not researched enough. Still, Wu believes that vegans should take taurine supplements as this amino acid isn’t present in vegetables.
It turns out, we still don’t know what our brain needs to be healthy, so it’s difficult to artificially add a certain nutrient to one’s diet if researchers still don’t know its worth.
A biologist from Oxford University, Nathan Cofnas, says:
There are so many unknowns. And when you deviate from the typical diet for your species, to one which has not been tested and properly established to be healthy or good for the brain, you are conducting an experiment and you are taking a risk.
For example, the brain uses choline to make acetylcholine that’s responsible for many functions, such as relaying messages between nerve cells. If you think about it, even the tiniest insects have it in their brains, and the body is not able to produce sufficient amounts of choline on its own.
Still, choline is one of the most understudied nutrients ever, according to Wallace, and it’s regarded as a crucial nutrient since the late 1990s.
The best food sources of choline are beef, eggs, and seafood, although small amounts are present in many vegan staples. It is estimated that 90% of Americans who follow a normal diet still don’t consume this amino acid enough. But, vegetarians have the lowest levels of choline of any demographics, which is quite concerning, says Wallace.
The picture is still bleaker for vegans as those consuming eggs usually have double the choline levels than people who don’t. Also, even though there are certain intakes suggested by the US authorities, they could be way off.
According to a 2018 study, the babies of mothers who had taken twice the adequate amount in the last trimester enjoyed a lasting cognitive edge. A vegetarian diet includes around 1/5 of that amount.
When it comes to other nutrients, such as creatine, our knowledge is even more obscure. The natural function of this nutrient is to provide energy for our cells, which is why many people include it in fitness shakes as an attempt to improve their endurance.
However, creatine is also important for our brain. According to studies, a higher intake of this nutrient can lead to reduced mental fatigue, better recognition memory, and other benefits. It has also started to be known as a smart drug.
Since plants and fungi don’t contain creatine, it’s clear that vegans and vegetarians have lower levels in their bodies.
So, researchers have started investigating if the lack of creatine could hold people back. In one research led by David Benton from Swansea University, vegetarians and omnivores took supplements for five days. Vegetarians noted a positive effect on their intelligence, while omnivores were almost unaffected. This means that omnivores already had adequate amounts in their brains, unlike vegetarians.
Another study led by Caroline Rae suggests that more research is needed to prove the effects of creatine. She believes that taking it may lead to reducing the brain’s ability to make its own creatine. This, in turn, may lead to creatine withdrawal.
Also, the brain makes its own supply of this nutrient, so it’s still unclear if vegans need additional creatine. Our brain may only use food-derived creatine when we are stressed or in similar extreme conditions, so our diet may not have to be the main source.
Still, Cofnas believes that lack of creatine in vegans can make a small but significant difference in their intelligence.
According to the dietitian from The Vegan Society Heather Russell:
I think we need a lot more research into vegan nutrition and health. As far as we can tell, it’s possible to lead a healthy life as a vegan – certainly there are people who thrive on a vegan diet.
Even though taking supplements is important, she says that one’s brain and cardiovascular health are inextricably connected, and vegans usually have healthier hearts.
“I tell people all the time, if you’re going to be a vegan or vegetarian, that’s fine. I’m certainly not advocating against it. But there are 40 or something essential nutrients. So, I mean, it really would take a lot of research for vegans to get everything the brain needs.”
Nutrients like taurine, carnosine, creatine, and choline are present in very low or zero amounts in a vegan diet, but they are very bulky, so taking a standard vitamin tablet is insufficient. They should instead be taken individually.
Here’s what Benton has to say about this:
I’m sure that if you are knowledgeable, careful, and obsessive about it – and you have all the right personality characteristics to be this way – then it is possible to have a healthy diet as a vegan. But it is distinctly possible that you could have deficiencies.
According to Cofnas, it’s quite unrealistic that all vegans would take supplements. Therefore, plant-based diets may lead to problems in the future. Without a doubt, vegan diets can cause iron and vitamin B12 deficiencies which, in turn, can affect people’s intelligence, Cofnas says.
Back to Gandhi, he abandoned his banned relationship with meat and returned to vegetarianism. However, he didn’t stop experimenting with nutrition. Gandhi ditched salt for a while, return to it, and even tried veganism. But, after reducing almost to a living skeleton due to a bout of dysentery, he realized that people need milk products to be healthy.
We still don’t know the truth, but it’s time to find it out, don’t we?
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