Plant-based diets ‘risk worsening brain health’

Vegan food is becoming more popular.
Vegan food is becoming more popular.
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The momentum behind a move to plant-based and vegan diets for the good of the planet risks worsening an already low intake of an essential nutrient involved in brain health, a leading nutritionist has warned.

To make matters worse, the UK government has failed to recommend or monitor dietary levels of this nutrient – choline, which is found predominantly in animal foods – said Dr Emma Derbyshire of Nutritional Insight, a consultancy specialising in nutrition and biomedical science.

Choline is an essential dietary nutrient but the amount produced by the liver is not enough to meet the requirements of the human body.

The nutrient is critical to brain health, particularly during foetal development.

It also influences liver function, with shortfalls linked to irregularities in blood fat metabolism as well as excess free radical cellular damage, wrote Dr Derbyshire in the online journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health. The primary sources of dietary choline are found in beef, eggs, dairy products, fish, and chicken, with much lower levels found in nuts, beans, and vegetables, such as broccoli.

In 1998, recognising the importance of choline, the US Institute of Medicine recommended minimum daily intakes. These range from 425mg/day for women to 550 mg/day for men, and 450mg/day and 550mg/day for pregnant and breastfeeding women,the higher figure taking account of the nutrient’s key role in foetal development. In 2016, the European Food Safety Authority published similar daily requirements.

Yet national dietary surveys in North America, Australia, and Europe show that habitual choline intake, on average, falls short of these recommendations.

Dr Derbyshire said: “This is concerning given that current trends appear to be towards meat reduction and plant-based diets. Given the important physiological roles of choline and authorisation of certain health claims, it is questionable why choline has been overlooked for so long in the UK,”

She commends the first report (EAT-Lancet) to compile a healthy food plan based on promoting environmental sustainability, but suggests the restricted intakes of whole milk, eggs and animal protein it recommends could affect choline intake.

Dr Derbyshire added: “More needs to be done to educate healthcare professionals and consumers in the importance of a choline-rich diet, and how to achieve this. If choline is not obtained in the levels needed from dietary sources then supplementation strategies will be required.”