Hrmmm…let me see…since veg-head types seem to be overwhelmingly liberal/Left, I’m gonna have to go with “Oh HELL yes!” on that one.
The idea that avoiding meat is bad for our brains makes some intuitive sense; anthropologists have been arguing about what our ancestors ate for decades, but many scientists think that there was a lot of bone-crunching and brain-slurping on the road to evolving these remarkable 1.4kg (3lb) organs. Some have even gone so far as to say that meat made us human.
One reason is that intelligence is expensive – the brain devours about 20% of our daily calories, though it accounts for just 2% of our body weight – and what better way to find the enormous array of fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals these fastidious organs require, than by feasting on animals which have already painstakingly collected or made them.
But though it’s hard to imagine our ancestors choosing turnips over tuna, today it’s a different story. According to the latest statistics, there are around 375 million vegetarians on the planet. In the West, veganism has ditched the hippie stigma to become one of the fastest-growing millennial trends; in the United States, it grew by 600% between 2014 and 2017. Meanwhile in India, meat-free diets have been mainstream since the 6th Century BCE.
Might at least partially explain why most of India is such a horrid, back-asswards dump, no? And why average IQ scores are declining, abruptly reversing a steady, 3-points-per-decade increase throughout the 20th century?
Ideally, to test the impact of the vegan diet on the brain, you would take a randomly selected group of people, ask half to stop eating animal products – then see what happens. But there isn’t a single study like this.
Instead, the only research that comes close involved the reverse. It was conducted on 555 Kenyan schoolchildren, who were fed one of three different types of soup – one with meat, one with milk, and one with oil – or no soup at all, as a snack over seven school terms. They were tested before and after, to see how their intelligence compared. Because of their economic circumstances, the majority of the children were de facto vegetarians at the start of the study.
Surprisingly, the children who were given the soup containing meat each day seemed to have a significant edge. By the end of the study, they outperformed all the other children on a test for non-verbal reasoning. Along with the children who received soup with added oil, they also did the best on a test of arithmetic ability. Of course, more research is needed to verify if this effect is real, and if it would also apply to adults in developed countries, too. But it does raise intriguing questions about whether veganism could be holding some people back.
In fact, there are several important brain nutrients that simply do not exist in plants or fungi. Creatine, carnosine, taurine, omega-3, haem iron and vitamins B12 and D3 generally only occur naturally in foods derived from animal products, though they can be synthesised in the lab or extracted from non-animal sources such as algae, bacteria or lichen, and added to supplements.
Others are found in vegan foods, but only in meagre amounts; to get the minimum amount of vitamin B6 required each day (1.3 mg) from one of the richest plant sources, potatoes, you’d have to eat about five cups’ worth (equivalent to roughly 750g or 1.6lb). Delicious, but not particularly practical.
And though the body can make some of these vital brain compounds from other ingredients in our diets, this ability isn’t usually enough to make up for these dietary cracks. For all of the nutrients listed above, vegetarians and vegans have been shown to have lower quantities in their bodies. In some cases, deficiency isn’t the exception – it’s completely normal.
For now, the impact these shortcomings are having on the lives of vegans is largely a mystery. But a trickle of recent studies have provided some clues – and they make for unsettling reading.
Well, unsettling if you’re a vegan, that is. Seeing as how there isn’t the slightest chance of me ever willingly making that switch, pas de sweat over here, thanks.
All my snark aside, this is actually a pretty interesting read.