Study: Plant-Based Diets Risk Worsening Brain Health

When was the first time you heard the word “vegan”? Odds are, the diet lifestyle and philosophy based on abstaining from the consumption of any and all animal-based products seems like any other recent “trend” in today’s world of nutritional philosophies. But the truth is, veganism has been in practice across the world for centuries now, although the term wasn’t coined as we know it until late 1944. Nonetheless, there are any number of philosophies and objectives that can influence an individual to take on a vegan diet today, making it a pop culture lifestyle just as much as an individual nutritional practice. And because of that prominence and popularity, health experts are interested in learning the longterm impact it can have on us. 

Is it really just a passing fad? Is it potentially dangerous? Or to the contrary, is it actually the safest and healthiest nutritional choice today? According to a report by The Economist, a quarter of 25-to-34-year-olds identify as vegan today, marking a significant growth from a single-digit percentage of that cohort in just 2015. So regardless of the reasons behind it, plant-based diets are currently on the rise at a rapid rate. 

A prevailing belief that influences many to take on a vegan lifestyle is that our use of preservatives in our food and pesticides in agriculture, for example, has built a foundation of food that is either lacking in nutrients or full of potentially harmful chemicals. This bleeds into every stage of our food chain, including and possibly most prevalent in our animal-based products, leading many to adopt organic, vegan diets. Another prominent influence on adopting veganism is the belief that plant-based diets are better for the environment, as animal agriculture is said to be responsible for 13 percent to 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. Beef, specifically, is considered to be the greatest single contributor to these statistics

One of the main ways in which the livestock sector contributes to global warming is through deforestation caused by the expansion of pasture land and arable land used to grow feed crops,” writes Skeptical Science. “Overall, animal agriculture is responsible for about 9% of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions globally (UN FAO)." 

“Ruminant animals like cattle produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide,” they add. “The livestock sector is responsible for about 37% of human-caused methane emissions, and about 65% of human nitrous oxide emissions (mainly from manure), globally (UN FAO)." 

With all this in mind, UK researchers set out to examine the possible impacts a plant-based diet can have on individuals over the long term. Humans, of course, evolved by extracting nutrients from many different sources of food. Whether early man’s diet was restricted to mostly plants with the occasional successful hunt providing meat, or living off the ocean and fish, we’re a fairly resilient species. However, one of the main concerns about restricting oneself to plant-based nutrition only offers sufficient nutrition. A significant nutrient that is lost in plant-based diets is choline, a water-soluble vitamin-like essential nutrient present in eggs and animal organs, as well as in plants, although in different quantities. Our body uses it to synthesize phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin, two major phospholipids vital for cell membranes and even works as a neurotransmitter that plays a role in memory and muscle control. It’s so vital to our brain that developing fetuses need large amounts of choline to build and develop neural structures. In fact, choline is so impactful in the development of unborn children that one study found mothers who had twice the recommended daily minimum (930 mg) in their diet while pregnant ended up having children with greater information processing speed.  

Healthy men are recommended 550 mg per day in their diet and women are recommended 425 mg per day, a standard that only 11 percent of American adults meet today, regardless of dietary restrictions or preferences. Men and women are getting about 402 and 278 mg per day, respectively, while vegetarians and vegans receive even less in their daily diet. Typical vegan sources of choline that can help round out those deficiencies are food like nuts, beans, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, but even they have significantly low levels of choline by weight. For example, there are 52.5 mg of choline per every 100 g of almonds — one of the greatest sources of the nutrient in a plant-based-only diet. By comparison, that is only half of the 104 mg of choline found in 100 g of beef steak. Beef liver, meanwhile, contains 431 mg of choline for every 100 g and hard-boiled eggs contain 226 mg of choline for every 100 g (the equivalent of two large eggs).  

So what’s a person to do? It seems as though we’re all choline-deficient to some degree, right? 

"This is....concerning given that current trends appear to be towards meat reduction and plant-based diets," says Dr. Emma Derbyshire, of Nutritional Insight, a consultancy specializing in nutrition and biomedical science. "Given the important physiological roles of choline and authorization of certain health claims, it is questionable why choline has been overlooked for so long in the UK. Choline is presently excluded from UK food composition databases, major dietary surveys, and dietary guidelines.” 

"More needs to be done to educate healthcare professionals and consumers about the importance of a choline-rich diet, and how to achieve this. If choline is not obtained in the levels needed from dietary sources per se then supplementation strategies will be required, especially in relation to key stages of the life cycle, such as pregnancy, when choline intakes are critical to infant development," she concludes. 

Maybe this just means we need to be on the lookout for choline supplements to be the next great boom in nutrition supplementation. 

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