- A trend of vegan and plant-based diets could be “dumbing down” future generations, according to a prominent UK nutritionist.
- She argues that animal products are the best sources of choline, an essential nutrient for brain and liver health.
- The nutritionist is particularly concerned about vegan pregnant women, whom she suggests don’t get enough choline to support their growing babies’ brain development.
- Critics, however, have pointed out her advisory roles in the meat and egg industries, and noted that choline is available to vegans in both plants and supplements.
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Advocates of plant-based eating are in an uproar this week after a respected UK nutritionist claimed veganism could be depriving babies and children of a critical “brain-building” nutrient.
Emma Derbyshire, a nutrition consultant and author of a book on maternal nutrition, said the UK may face a “potential choline crisis” in an article published August 30 in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health.
Derbyshire argues that many adults don’t get enough choline, an essential nutrient, in their diets, a problem exacerbated by the popularity of plant-based or vegan diets that eliminate good sources of choline like meat and eggs. She warned that a lack of choline during pregnancy could put infants’ cognitive development at risk.
“We are at risk of dumbing down the brain power of the next generation,” Derbyshire told UK news site The Sun.
But other nutritionists have said that a plant-based diet can provide plenty of choline, and pregnant vegans have the options of using supplements. Critics have also pointed out that Derbyshire has provided consulting for the Meat Advisory Panel and the British Egg Information Service, listed as “competing interests” in the published article.
A lack of choline can cause serious health problems
Choline is produced in the liver in small amounts, but not enough to meet daily nutritional needs. So, you have to get it through dietary sources.
The nutrient is important for a healthy liver and metabolism, as well as for the brain, since it plays a role in producing brain chemicals related to memory, mood, and muscle control, according to the U.S. Department of Health.
Health officials recommend about 400 milligrams of choline a day for most adults, although recent research has suggested that some people may need more choline than others based on their genes.
Choline deficiency is an issue for as many as 1 in 10 Americans, according to data cited by Derbyshire. She said a growing trend of plant-based and vegan diets may have the unintended consequence of worsening the problem, and questioned why choline deficiency has been overlooked in her country. She called for more research, too.
Derbyshire wrote that she is particularly concerned about choline deficiency during pregnancy, which can influence how the fetus’s brain and spinal cord develop.
Choline can be found in both animal and non-animal products
Derbyshire said the best dietary sources of choline are beef and eggs, citing research that people who eat those foods are more likely to get enough choline than those who don’t. Milk is a good source, too.
But plenty of plant-based foods have sufficient amounts of choline, according to registered dietitian Heather Russell. For instance, almonds, soy, beans, broccoli, and rice are all good sources of choline.
“This nutrient is widely distributed in plant foods because it’s present in cell membranes. Soya products, quinoa, and broccoli are some of the best plant-based sources,” she said in a statement from the Vegan Society that called Derbyshire’s paper “sensationalized.”
The overarching health consensus is that a plant-based diet can be safe during pregnancy
Most health experts concur that plant-based eating is not only safe, but optimal for health.
“You do not need to take a choline supplement when you switch to totally plant-based nutrition if you eat a balanced and varied diet containing plenty of minimally processed plant foods. The evidence base shows that this way of eating can support excellent health,” Russell said in the statement.
This is consistent with information from British Dietetic Association.
“You absolutely can meet the requirements with a vegan or plant-based diet,” spokeswoman Bahee Van de Bor told the BBC. She added that good planning can help make sure a diet is nutritious, and picky eaters may want to consider a choline supplement.
The eating pattern can be safe for pregnant women, too, “provided that attention is paid to vitamin and trace element requirements,” according to a 2015 survey of available research on veganism and pregnancy.