The Effect Of Veganism On The Brain

A Vegan’s Health

The Vegan Society describes vegans as having one thing in common: 

“A plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey.” 

Vegans can be anti-animal cruelty but in this article we’ll be focusing on the nutritional factors of veganism.

Veganism has been heavily in the spotlight recently, with more than 150,000 people joining in with Veganuary 2020 (a month of veganism), it’s no wonder that all eyes are on veganism this year. And it seems that research behind the positive and negative health side effects are playing catch up.

Although studies on veganism have been around for decades, it’s only recently the number of studies have skyrocketed, many of which are open to debate. 

And we’re about to explore some of the evidence.

Veganism And B12 

As far back as 1979, a study by M. C. Wighton, Brain Damage In Infancy And Dietary Vitamin B12 Deficiency, explored veganism and vitamin deficiency. 

After analysing a solely breast-fed infant of a vegetarian mother, they found that “neurological deterioration commenced between three and six months of age… Investigations revealed a mild nutritional vitamin B12 deficiency in the mother and a very severe nutritional B12 deficiency in the infant.” 

Wighton goes on to explain that “treatment of the infant with vitamin B12 resulted in a rapid clinical and haematological improvement, but neurological recovery was incomplete.”

They concluded that the B12 deficiency “was the sole cause of the infant’s deterioration (and that) all strict vegetarians (vegans), especially women in the child‐bearing age group, should take vitamin B12 supplements.” Other studies of similar proportions replicate similar findings. Although, it’s still worth bearing in mind that the study specimen (of one infant) is very small.  

A 2008 study by Maureen M. Black called the Effects of Vitamin B12 and Folate Deficiency on Brain Development in Children, found that “folate deficiency in the periconceptional period contributes to neural tube defects; deficits in vitamin B12 (cobalamin) have negative consequences on the developing brain during infancy; and deficits of both vitamins are associated with a greater risk of depression during adulthood.”  

B12 is offered as a support supplement for vegetarians and vegans, as it’s often found in animal products like meats, milk and eggs. According to the US National Institutes of Health, B12 helps to keep the “body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. Vitamin B12 also helps prevent a type of anemia called megaloblastic anemia that makes people tired and weak.”

Veganism And Other Supplements

In 2019, Marc Choi’s work, How to Supplement a Vegan Diet, suggested that fatty acids absorbed from non-vegan products like meat and eggs can be essential to brain and other organ development. Choi explains,

“Docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) that are transferred across the placenta and found in the brain/other organs during fetal development. Low levels of docosahexaenoic acid from the retina and the brain could result in reduced visual function and learning deficits.” 

Choi suggests that vegans and vegetarians should take supplementation in the form of: 

  • Calcium 
  • Magnesium 
  • Vitamin B12 

He concludes that taking them “may reduce the risk of decreased birth weight and severity of pre eclampsia.” 

Veganism And Gut Microbes

A 2019 study by Aleksandra Tomova et al., called The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota, highlighted that a vegan and/or a vegetarian diet may be good for the brain and body:

“Current research indicates that diet is the essential factor for human gut microbiota composition, which in its turn is crucial for metabolizing nutrients into active for the host postbiotics. Up to date knowledge suggests that a plant-based diet may be an effective way to promote a diverse ecosystem of beneficial microbes that support overall health.” 

Whether it’s due to the fact vegan’s don’t have to process meat and dairy or due to the assumed higher quantity of vegetable intake, it’s suggested that a plant-based diet may boost your gut’s microbes in a good way.

Scientists Evelyn Medawar et al., reviewed current evidence for a vegan’s diet and its effect on the body. They found that “there is an overall robust support for beneficial effects of a plant-based diet on metabolic measures in health and disease.”

Veganism And Metabolism Plus Cognition

A 2019 study, The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review, by Evelyn Medawar, reviewed an array of scientific findings to pinpoint the side-effects of being a vegan on metabolism and cognition. Here’s what they found:

We found robust evidence for short to moderate-term beneficial effects of plant-based diets versus conventional diets (duration ≤ 24 months) on weight status, energy metabolism and systemic inflammation in healthy participants, obese and type-2 diabetes patients.

Initial experimental studies proposed novel microbiome-related pathways, by which plant-based diets modulate the gut microbiome towards a favorable diversity of bacteria species, yet a functional “bottom up” signaling of plant-based diet-induced microbial changes remains highly speculative…

In sum, the increasing interest for plant-based diets raises the opportunity for developing novel preventive and therapeutic strategies against obesity, eating disorders and related comorbidities.”

Highlights from their paper include:

– “Caloric intake was similar across groups, participants who had followed a vegan diet showed higher weight loss and improved metabolic status.”

– “A recent large cross-sectional study showed a higher occurrence of depressive symptoms for vegetarian dieters compared to nonvegetarians.”

– “The reason for lower systemic inflammation in plant-based dieters could be due to the abundance of anti-inflammatory molecule intake and/or avoidance of proinflammatory animal-derived molecules.”

– “The evidence for effects of strictly plant-based diets on cognition is very limited. For other plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean diet or DASH diet, there are more available studies that indicate protective effects on cardiovascular and brain health in the aging population.” 

More and more studies are needed to identify the effects veganism and being a meat eater can have on the body and brain. Although there are many studies available and numerous studies currently in process, there’s just not enough evidence to pinpoint the long and short term effects of either.

However, that being said, plant-based diets are opening up new ways of living physically, spiritually and environmentally. Not only this, veganism is challenging the way we live, eat and think about meat and other animal products in a good way.

The next 10 years will bring exciting dietary changes and positive new ways of eating and thinking.

For now, eat wisely and be mindful of the decisions you make when it comes to your brain, body and health. 

Sources Cited:

Maisie Bygraves

2 thoughts on “The Effect Of Veganism On The Brain

  1. I am very surprised to see that this article essential warns against vegetarian/vegan mother’s from breast feeding based on the results of a trial with ONE infant. Crazy.
    I am sure plenty of meat eating mothers are also b12 deficient.
    Very irresponsible.

  2. The problem is badly designed studies. Much of the research is epidemeological and only shows correlations. This research is next to worthless, other than data from which to form hypotheses to be tested with better research. But the problem is this low quality evidence has been used to inform dietary recommendations and public policy.

    There have been a number of large studies that show meat-eaters are healthier than vegans and vegetarians on almost every measure. This is particularly true of Asian research, indicating there is confounding factors such as the healthy and unhealthy user effect that has nothing to do with diet.

    Most of the research has compared plant-based or plant-exclusive diets with the standard American diet (SAD). That is utterly meaningless. Eating dog poo would probably show benefits compared to SAD. The benefits might simply have to do with a eating fewer processed foods filled with refined starches, seed oils, and food additives.

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