Plant-Based Diets: Bad For The Brain?

There seems to be a mad rush to push Americans and others around the world to adopt a plant-based diet. Large swaths of people speak authoritatively about how vegan diets will save the planet and cure everything from obesity to diabetes to cancer to the common cold. We’re told that cow farts pollute the atmosphere and cause global warming and bacon causes cancer and makes children fat.

Of course, not every vegan, vegetarian or proponent of plant-based diets takes a haughty, holier-than-thou approach to the discussion around them. But that attitude does seem to pervade the celebrity, politician and “influencer” crowd, doesn’t it? (Full disclosure – I have friends who are plant-based, vegetarian and vegan. They’re my friends because they aren’t tool-bags about it.)

Many of these folks will tell you that if you don’t agree with them, you’re somehow immoral and a threat to the planet. They’ll tell you that if you don’t change to a plant-based diet, you’re somehow dooming everyone else to fate worse than death and that there’s something wrong with your brain.

But what if a plant-based diet isn’t the answer? What if a plant-based diet might actually cause harm to your brain? What if that plant-based diet caused brain defects and developmental problems in infants and children and memory and cognition problems in adults? How moral and planet-saving is it then?

Mmm…choline!

According to a report written by a British nutrition expert for the British Medical Journal of Nutrition, Prevention & Health, plant-based diets are lacking in a key nutrient, choline. Dr. Emma Derbyshire writes that this lack of choline is a problem for both adults and children in parts of the world where plant-based diets are prevalent. In many cases, this prevalence is a result of poverty. She also claims that the lack of choline is a significant problem as it relates to fetal brain development and fetal size, health and robustness.

What is choline? What does it do in the body? Why is a plant-based diet deficient in it?

Choline is an essential nutrient, necessary for the normal functions of the body and for good health. Not really a vitamin or a mineral, choline is an organic compound that’s water-soluble. The liver makes a little, but the majority of what you require each day must come from food.

A few of choline’s day-to-day functions include:

  • Fat metabolism and transport – Choline is an ingredient in a substance required to remove cholesterol from the liver. As a result, low choline levels may lead to the accumulation of cholesterol and fat in the liver. (1, 2)
  • Involved in DNA production – Choline is essential in the creation of DNA that is involved in building out the entire structure of the human body. (3)
  • Cell structures – By playing a role in the absorption of fats used to create cell structures and membranes, choline is responsible, in part, for the health of your cells. It’s especially important for cell membrane structural integrity. (4)
  • Cardiovascular health – Choline works with folate to convert homocysteine to methionine. This helps keep homocysteine levels in check, which helps reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. (5)
  • Nervous system health – Choline is the key ingredient in the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. If you want to move, you need acetylcholine, since it’s the neurotransmitter used at the neuromuscular junction to initiate muscle cell activity. In addition, choline is important for memory, learning, concentration and mood. (6) Via it’s role in maintaining acetylcholine levels, choline seems to help keep the brain elastic and my play a role in keeping dementia and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s at bay.
  • Brain tissue health – Choline helps protect brain cell membranes, nerves and neurons, helping to maintain their structural integrity.
  • Fetal brain and cellular development – Choline is critical during gestation and infancy. A lack of choline during gestation may lead to inadequate fetal brain cell development. Particularly during the third trimester, the fetal brain grows at a remarkable rate, requiring surprising quantities of nutrients. Without adequate choline, DNA production suffers, brain cells and membranes may develop poorly and nerve fibers may not myelinate properly. Choline is also interrelated with folate with regard to neural tube closure in fetuses. (7)

It’s with regard to these last 3 – nervous system health, brain tissue health and fetal brain and cellular development – that Dr. Derbyshire primarily wrote. She warned that, in spite of the US Institute of Medicine’s 1998 establishment of recommended minimum daily intake levels of choline, as well as similar requirements published by the European Food Safety Authority, there remains a problem.

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According to national dietary surveys in North America, Europe and Australia, habitual choline intake falls short of recommendations. Both groups recommended 425 mg/day for women, 550 mg/day for men, and 450 mg/day and 550 mg/day for pregnant and lactating/breastfeeding women, respectively. Choline intake for pregnant and breastfeeding women should be higher because of it’s critical role in fetal development, according to Dr. Derbyshire.

The best sources of dietary choline are animal food sources. Eggs, beef, turkey, pork, veal, whey and salmon are among the best sources of choline. (8) Here’s a look at some common choline sources:

Turkey breast (1 breast,) 659.3 mg

Egg (1 whole, hard-boiled,) 399.6 mg

Beef liver (3 ounces, cooked,) 362.1 mg

Green peas (1 cup, raw,) 307.5 mg

Chicken liver (3 ounces, cooked,) 246.5 mg

Sockeye Salmon (1 filet, smoked,) 241.7 mg

Whey Protein Powder (3 scoops,) 193.5 mg

Cod (3 ounces, cooked,) 248 mg

Tofu yogurt (1 cup,) 126.8 mg

Shitake mushrooms (1 cup, cooked,) 116 mg

Broccoli (1/2 cup,) 31.3 mg

Cauliflower (1/2 cup,) 24.2 mg

While it’s possible to get the choline necessary for good health from a plant-based diet, you’d have to consume a huge quantity of vegetables to do it. The good doctor doesn’t think that’s very “sustainable” either.

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“This is….concerning given that current trends appear to be towards meat reduction and plant-based diets,” says Dr Derbyshire. While she commends the idea of a healthy food plan that is also designed to promote environmental sustainability, she believes the restriction of whole milk, eggs and animal protein intake suggested by such a plan will negatively affect choline intake. Derbyshire thinks part of the problem is exemplified by the fact that the UK authorities don’t even provide recommendations for choline intake in dietary guidance.

“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,” she writes. “Choline is presently excluded from UK food composition databases, major dietary surveys, and dietary guidelines,” she adds.

Considering how important choline is to brain health, fetal brain and general development, metabolism and other aspects of health, it may be time for us to rethink our rush to plant-based diets. Choline may not be the only key nutrient “lost” in the move to these diets.

If we negatively impact things like memory, cognition, metabolism, fetal brain development and other critical body functions, is that truly “sustainable?” If we want to create a truly sustainable food plan, it needs to take the needs of those who live ON the planet at least as seriously as it does the planet itself.

If plant-based diets, as they’re now being presented, are going to negatively affect brain health and all that goes with it, you can count me out. Besides, I really like a good steak. And apparently, that’s a good thing, at least as far as my brain is concerned!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12668679
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12193594
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8709678
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20446114
5. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/195433
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7946521
7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10799394
8. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/nutrients/report

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