A friend had me over for a yoga class at her home a few months ago. To the tune of some crystal bowls and a guitar, about 20 of us were led into a state of deep relaxation. Afterwards, we shared a meal. Many of them were vegetarians and my host told them with a slight grin that I was writing a book about brain nutrition and diet. I swallowed hard. For more than a decade, I was a vegetarian. I completed medical school without an ounce of meat – no beef, chicken, fish, and for a while in college, I tried to eat a very low-fat diet too. But I’ve changed my tune. Animals and their products are needed for healthy, happy brain.
There are a few nutrients that are essential for the brain that can only be found in meat or animal products. Unless you take a few key supplements, a vegetarian diet will actually cause the brain to deteriorate over time. Vitamin B12 only comes from animal products, meat, dairy, or eggs. Without it the special insulation of our brain cells called myelin deteriorates. Omega-3 fatty acids make babies smarter and keep the brain running smoothly as we age. Meat is also a top source of iron and zinc, essential for proper brain development. Unique fats found in ruminant animals fight cancer. Mother nature concentrates these nutrients in meat (properly raised) and we should treat it like the finest of elixirs for health.
A healthy relationship with meat is a step closer to better brain health for many patients I work with. And a healthy relationship with meat is a better relationship with meat. Understanding how to raise meat that is sustainable, humane, doesn’t cause antibiotic resistance in our hospitals, and gives us the brain nutrients it always has — that is the big food question of the coming decades. Given my opinion that meat – done right – is brainfood, the title of this study kept me up at night, “Vegetarian Diets are Associated with Healthy Mood States: a Cross-sectional Study.” To its credit, the methodology of the study is quite good. But the conclusions could be dangerous: implying that vegetarian diets lead to healthy moods could lead to a lot of brain rot.
Maybe I shouldn’t worry too much. First, it is cross-sectional and measures just one moment in time. We get some associations from this kind of data, but that’s about it. Second, this is a small sample of a specialized population: 138 Seventh Day Adventists, just 60 of whom are vegetarian. Seventh Day Adventists have many protective factors in their religious culture: they don’t drink or smoke, they exercise, and they have strong religious beliefs leading to a supportive community. And a vegetarian diet is encouraged, which I bet effects the psychology of non-vegetarians. The authors do acknowledge these limitations and review all of this nicely.
The conclusions? People who eat less of the most important fats for brain health (EPA and DHA), less of pro-inflammatory arachodonic acid, and more omega-3’s in ALA form and omega-6s as linoleic acid had better moods. Overall, no one in the study ate much fat, and oddly the vegetarians ate more fat at 44 grams/day compared to the omnivores who ate just 35 grams/day. For a person on a 2000 per day calorie diet, this is less than 20 percent of energy from fat, which is, unlike the average American who gets between 30-35 of their calories from fat.
The researchers didn’t publish any info about dietary supplements.