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Do vegans need supplements? Supercharging veganism for mental health

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Vegan diets are free of all animal products including meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, honey, and animal-derived products. People adopt vegan diets for several reasons including environmental sustainability, animal protection, religious beliefs, health improvement or personal reasons. Over the years, veganism has seen increasing popularity around the world. 

The rise of veganism

According to the Vegan Society UK, between 2014-2019, the number of vegans has increased four folds, with 1 in 5 Brits considering going vegan in the future [1]. An estimated 13% of Asians, 6% of Americans and 4% of Europeans follow a vegan diet [2].

Nutritional makeup of vegan diets

Plant-based diets are often glorified due to their expected health benefits. The EPIC-Oxford study, one of the largest studies involving over 2000 vegans, found that vegans had a higher intake of fibre, magnesium, iron, folic acid, vitamins B1, C and E compared to meat eaters [3]. Due to inclusion of only plant-based foods, it is important to assess the status of animal-sourced nutrients in those who are vegan. Deficiencies of these nutrients are common.  The EPIC-Oxford study also found that vegans had lower intake of Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and protein [3]. Similar results were highlighted by a 2021 review of 48 studies on adequacy of vegan diets [4]. Vegans were found to have 40-50% less brain-healthy fats like DHA and EPA (type of omega 3 fats) compared to meat-eaters [5]. Some of these nutrients play a central role in brain health and need special attention. 

Veganism and mental health

A 2021 review of 13 studies found that vegan diets were related to a higher risk of depression [6]. The review listed nutrient deficiencies and low intake of specific protein building blocks as possible reasons for the veganism and depression connection. 

It is possible to eat unhealthily on a vegan diet. A study of around 300 vegans found that 40% of the caloric intake was from ultra-processed foods [7]. Ultra-processed foods are those that are high in sugars, unhealthy fats, salt, chemicals, and preservatives. Vegan foods are often ultra-processed to enhance the texture, flavour, and taste. But this comes at a cost. A decade long study of 10,000 participants found that those who consumed 20% of their total daily calories from processed foods had a 25% decrease in mental functions [8].

It is entirely possible to meet the needs of brain-healthy nutrients on a vegan diet. Smart choices of whole and fortified foods along with appropriate supplementation is the secret to supercharging vegan diet for physical and mental wellbeing. 

Veganism and diet adequacy

An estimated 30% of vegans consume insufficient protein [4]. This also translates into low intake of building blocks of protein, up to 60% less compared to meat eaters [12][14], some of which are essential for brain health. Protein building blocks like tryptophan and tyrosine are needed to produce brain chemicals like serotonin (feel-good brain chemical) and dopamine (reward and motivation brain chemical) respectively. Below are ways you can optimize these protein building blocks for brain health:

Tryptophan 

Tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin in your brain. Tryptophan is converted to 5-HTP which is then converted to serotonin, the feel-good chemical that regulates your mood and sleep. Compared to meat eaters, vegans had 6% lower concentration of tryptophan in their blood [9]. This matters because only 1-3% of the total dietary tryptophan is converted to serotonin in the brain [10]. When study participants switched from meat-eating diet to a vegan diet (excluding all animal products except fish), their tryptophan levels decreased by 60% in 6 weeks [11]. The following vegan sources are high in tryptophan and can be incorporated to improve intake for optimal serotonin production. 

Food (per 100g)

Tryptophan content (mg)

Sesame flour

1100

Spirulina

929

Tofu, dried frozen

747

Soybeans, raw

591

Pumpkin seeds, roasted

569

Chia seeds

436

Supplementing with 5-HTP is a shortcut way of increasing serotonin during sub-optimal tryptophan intake. Brain feed’s 100mg 5-htp is extracted and isolated from Ghanian Griffonia Simplicifolia seeds. 98% of the tablet is comprised of 5-htp making it the smallest, nutrient-dense tablet available and no unnecessary bulking agents. You can read more about it here.

Tyrosine

Tyrosine is the precursor for dopamine, which is your reward and pleasure brain chemical. It also regulates motivation. Compared to meat eaters, tyrosine intake is almost 40% lower among vegans [12]. It is possible to meet tyrosine needs by including the following vegan sources in the diet: 

Food (per 100g)

Tyrosine content (mg)

Spirulina

2580

Tofu, dried frozen

1600

Soy flour

1320

Hemp seeds

1260

Peanuts, roasted

1140

Broadbeans (fava beans), raw

827


Vegans with low intake of tyrosine rich foods can benefit from supplementation. Brain feed has created the world’s 1st natural 800mg vegan tyrosine capsule from fermented corn. You can read more about this here.

Choline

Choline is another important brain nutrient that is low in vegan diets [15]. The body can produce small amounts of choline but adequate intake from diet is essential to meet needs. In the brain, choline is used to produce the chemical involved in memory, learning and attention, called acetylcholine. The following foods are good vegan sources of choline:

Food (per 100g)

Choline content (mg)

Soy flour

191

Tofu, fried

106

Sun-dried tomatoes

105

Chickpeas, raw

99

Lima beans, raw

97

Lentils, raw

96


Those with low choline in their diet can benefit from supplementation. 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. Alpha GPC can increase acetylcholine levels within 1-3 hours post intake [16]. Brain feed has created the world’s 1st 500mg vegan Alpha GPC capsule containing 99% Alpha GPC* (the purest form of Alpha GPC). Read more about it here.

Soy is a strong contender as a vegan brain food due to being one of the best vegan sources of tryptophan, tyrosine, and choline. Vegans in the EPIC-Oxford study consumed less than 3% of their protein intake from soy [9]. This highlights the importance of supplementation after thorough analysis of dietary intake. 

Omega 3 fats

Structurally, your brain is made of fat [17]. 25% of that fat is DHA [18], a type of omega 3 fat. It must be taken from the diet and is found in fatty fish, seafood, and algae. DHA directly impacts the resilience of the protective covering of the brain, determining what can enter and exit the brain [19]. Those who consumed higher levels of omega 3 fats were found to have a large volume of brain structures involved in memory, learning and emotions [20]. ALA is a type of omega 3 found in plant products, commonly consumed by vegans. ALA can be converted to DHA in the body, but the conversion is limited. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends vegans to include an algae-based DHA supplement to meet needs [21]

Food (per 100g)

Omega 3 (g) (ALA)

Flaxseed oil

53

Flaxseed, ground

19

Chia seeds

18

Walnuts

9

Hemp seeds

8


Vitamin B12 

Vitamin B12 is predominantly found in animal sources. Though it is found in certain algae and mushrooms, it is ineffective to meet needs [23]. In the brain, vitamin B12 is an activator in the production of many brain chemicals including serotonin and dopamine [24]. A review of 15 studies established that vegans had the lowest intake of vitamin B12 [4] compared to other diets. In countries like Hong Kong and China, up to 80% of vegans were deficient in this vitamin [22], highlighting the importance of fortified foods and supplementation. 

Eating for brain health on a vegan diet requires a detailed evaluation of the nutrient content of the current diet. Inclusion of fortified foods and supplementation of missing or low nutrients are easy ways to maximize brain health in vegans.

References:

  1. The Vegan Society (2021). Worldwide growth of veganism. [online] The Vegan Society.
  2. Selinger, E. et al. (2022) Evidence of a vegan diet for health benefits and risks – an umbrella review of meta-analyses of observational and clinical studies, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition,
  3. Davey, G. K. et al. (2003). EPIC-Oxford: lifestyle characteristics and nutrient intakes in a cohort of 33 883 meat-eaters and 31 546 non meat-eaters in the UK. Public health nutrition6(3), 259–269.
  4. Bakaloudi, D. R. et al. (2021). Intake and adequacy of the vegan diet. A systematic review of the evidence. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland)40(5), 3503–3521.
  5. Saunders, A. V. et al. (2013). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets. The Medical journal of Australia199(S4), S22–S26.
  6. Iguacel, I. et al. (2021). Vegetarianism and veganism compared with mental health and cognitive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition reviews79(4), 361–381.
  7. Gehring, J. et al. (2021). Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods by Pesco-Vegetarians, Vegetarians, and Vegans: Associations with Duration and Age at Diet Initiation. The Journal of nutrition151(1), 120–131. 
  8. CNN, S.L. (n.d.). Cognitive decline linked to ultraprocessed food, study finds. [online]
  9. Schmidt, J. A. et al. (2016). Plasma concentrations and intakes of amino acids in male meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans: a cross-sectional analysis in the EPIC-Oxford cohort. European journal of clinical nutrition70(3), 306–312. 
  10. Richard, D.M., et al. (2009). L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications. International Journal of Tryptophan Research, [online] 2, p.IJTR.S2129. doi:10.4137/ijtr.s2129.
  11. Elshorbagy, A. et al. (2017). Amino acid changes during transition to a vegan diet supplemented with fish in healthy humans. European journal of nutrition56(5), 1953–1962.
  12. Dietrich, S. et al. (2022). Amino acid intake and plasma concentrations and their interplay with gut microbiota in vegans and omnivores in Germany. European journal of nutrition61(4), 2103–2114. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-021-02790-y
  13. Clarys, P. et al. (2014). Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients6(3), 1318–1332. 
  14. Dietrich, S. et al. (2022). Amino acid intake and plasma concentrations and their interplay with gut microbiota in vegans and omnivores in Germany. European journal of nutrition61(4), 2103–2114. 
  15. Crosby, L. et al. (2022). Changes in Food and Nutrient Intake and Diet Quality on a Low-Fat Vegan Diet Are Associated with Changes in Body Weight, Body Composition, and Insulin Sensitivity in Overweight Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics122(10), 1922–1939.e0.
  16. Frank, K. et al. (2022). Alpha-GPC Research Analysis. examine.com. [online]
  17. Chang, C.-Y. et al. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurologica Taiwanica, [online] 18(4), pp.231–241.
  18. Guesnet, P. et al. (2011). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the developing central nervous system (CNS) - Implications for dietary recommendations. Biochimie, [online] 93(1), pp.7–12.
  19. Calder, P.C. (2016). Docosahexaenoic Acid. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 69(1), pp.8–21. 
  20. 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.
  21. Vogliano, C. (2018). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Vegetarian Diets. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  22. Sakkas, H. et al. (2020). Nutritional Status and the Influence of the Vegan Diet on the Gut Microbiota and Human Health. Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania)56(2), 88.
  23. Alcorta, A. et al. (2021). "Foods for Plant-Based Diets: Challenges and Innovations" Foods 10, no. 2: 293. 
  24. Kennedy D. O. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy--A Review. Nutrients8(2), 68.
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