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Veganism mental health  vegan deficiencies vegan brain food  acetylcholine deficiency nutrients vegans needs

The BBC’s take on the nutrients vegans need and ways to prevent vegan deficiencies

Published Jan 12, 2023 | Updated Feb 8, 2024
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Veganism is on a rise. According to the Vegan Society UK, the number of vegans has increased 4x between 2014-2019, with 1 in 5 Brits considering going vegan in the future [1]. In 2022, over 629,000 people from all over the world participated in Veganuary [2]. It is a global campaign that encourages going vegan for the month of January.

The BBC published a segment on nutrients vegans need to focus on due to the restrictions of all animal products in the diet. Kimberley Wilson, MSc Nutrition, Chartered Psychologist, and author of the book, How to Build a Healthy Brain, provides a great insight on essential nutrients that must be focused on to prevent vegan deficiencies

Tryptophan for a happier mood

Animal protein is generally considered to be higher quality due to availability of all protein building blocks. Tryptophan is a building block that is needed to produce serotonin, your happy brain chemical that uplifts mood. Tryptophan is found in vegan sources like sesame flour, spirulina, tofu etc, and these foods may be absent from regular intake. Those who switched to a vegan diet saw a 60% drop in their tryptophan levels [7]. Tryptophan from your diet is converted to 5-HTP which is then converted to serotonin. Supplementing with 5-HTP is a shortcut way of increasing serotonin during sub-optimal tryptophan intake. You may want to consider the world’s smallest, nutrient-dense tablet made of 98% 5-HTP for a quick serotonin boost.


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Vitamin B12 for speedy brain processes

Kimberly brings to attention the risk of vitamin B12 deficiencies among vegans since it is primarily sourced from animal products. In the brain, vitamin B12 is an activator in the production of important brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine [3]. UK vegans were found to consume only 10% of the recommended levels [4]. The BBC segment recommends supplementation of this essential nutrient. The Vegan Society suggests eating fortified foods two or three times a day to get at least 3 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12 a day or taking 10 mcg of supplemental B12 [5].

Vegans can easily meet Vitamin B12 needs from fortified foods and supplements. With improved awareness, the future looks promising. An Australian study published in 2022 found that 73% of vegans took a Vitamin B12 supplement with almost 40% achieving the recommended levels [6].

Choline for better learning and memory

The BBC segment highlights the importance of choline, another essential nutrient that needs special attention for the vegan brain. Foods that are vegan friendly and provide some choline include soy, chickpeas and sundried tomatoes. Kimberly commends inclusion of choline in the vegan diet to make the learning and memory brain chemical, acetylcholine. Since its levels are directly related to the amount of choline available, adequate intake is essential to prevent acetylcholine deficiency so that your learning and memory skills stay top-notch. Supplemental choline is a good option if you are looking to ensure sufficiency. Alpha GPC is a form of choline that can freely enter the brain to produce acetylcholine. It is 41% choline by weight and can increase choline levels faster than other sources. The world’s 1st 500mg vegan Alpha GPC capsule containing 99% Alpha GPC* (the purest form of Alpha GPC) is a good supplemental option.


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Iodine to protect against brain damage

Kimberly draws attention to iodine, a nutrient that has been listed as the one of the most important nutrients to protect against brain damage. A 2020 study found that vegans consumed less than 35% of their iodine needs [8]. Iodine plays an essential role in the speed of production of brain cells and formation of their protective layering, making it crucial for cognitive health [9]. Seaweed is a vegan option that is high in iodine, though it may cause overload. The best practical option is iodized salt, which is table salt fortified with iodine, as recommended by the World Health Organization [10].

Omega 3 to build resilient brain structures

Omega 3 fats are healthy brain fats, some of which like DHA form part of the brain’s structure. The BBC referred to them as “irreplaceable fats” and “building block of brain cells”. DHA is involved in increasing the size of the memory, learning and emotion centres of the brain [11]. One of the highest sources of DHA is fish, which is restricted on a vegan diet. Kimberly recommends an algae-based DHA supplement for vegans. DHA from algae, water-based plant-like organisms, is as effective as fish [12]. Read more about it here. brain feed has developed a sustainable and plant-based omega 3 supplement that provides you with 500mg of DHA in just one vegan soft-gel capsule. Use code ‘NEW15’ to get 15% off your first purchase.


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Why is a balanced vegan diet good for your brain?

Data from over 12,000 people showed that plant-based diets lowered dementia risk by almost 40% [13]. A balanced vegan diet is also proposed to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease due to increased intake of fruits and vegetables and absence of meat products [14], resulting in improved vitamin and minerals profile and reduction in harmful fats and compounds found in animal products. The Veganuary participants reported improvement in their health status, and highlighted the link between veganism and mental health, with 48% reporting better mood and 49% claiming increased energy when they started a vegan diet. Once fine-tuned, a nutritionally adequate vegan diet can be a powerful tool to optimise brain health.

References

  1. The Vegan Society (2021). Worldwide growth of veganism. [online] The Vegan Society.
  2. Vernelli, T. (2022). 83% of Veganuary 2022 participants plan permanent diet change. [online] Veganuary.
  3. Kennedy D. O. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy--A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68.
  4. Niklewicz, A. et al. (2022). The importance of vitamin B12 for individuals choosing plant-based diets. European Journal of Nutrition
  5. Walsh, S. (2001). What Every Vegan Should Know About Vitamin B12. The Vegan Society.
  6. Benham, A. J. et al. (2022). Vitamin B12 Supplementation Adequacy in Australian Vegan Study Participants. Nutrients14(22), 4781.
  7. Elshorbagy, A. et al. (2017). Amino acid changes during transition to a vegan diet supplemented with fish in healthy humans. European journal of nutrition, 56(5), 1953–1962.
  8. Fallon, N., & Dillon, S. A. (2020). Low Intakes of Iodine and Selenium Amongst Vegan and Vegetarian Women Highlight a Potential Nutritional Vulnerability. Frontiers in nutrition7, 72.
  9. Choudhry, H., & Nasrullah, M. (2018). Iodine consumption and cognitive performance: Confirmation of adequate consumption. Food science & nutrition6(6), 1341–1351.
  10. World Health Organization. (2013). Nutrition: Effects of iodine deficiency. [online] 
  11. Conklin, S. M. et al. (2007). Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbic gray matter volume in healthy adults. Neuroscience letters, 421(3), 209–212.
  12. Arterburn, L. M. et al. (2008). Algal-oil capsules and cooked salmon: nutritionally equivalent sources of docosahexaenoic acid. Journal of the American Dietetic Association108(7), 1204–1209
  13. Lin, M. N. et al. (2019). The impact of a plant-based dietary pattern on dementia risk: a prospective cohort study. Innovation in Aging3 (Suppl 1), S734.
  14. Katonova, A. et al. (2022). Effect of a Vegan Diet on Alzheimer’s Disease. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, [online] 23(23), p.14924.


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