Vegans and vegetarians are at risk of missing out on a vital brain nutrient, an expert has warned.
Choline, which is mostly found in meat and dairy foods, helps to transfer signals between nerve cells, improves liver function, aids foetal brain development and may prevent brain disease. Humans do not produce enough choline naturally, so it must be obtained from dietary and supplement sources.
Vegans should 'look at supplements'
In an article for the British Medical Journal titled Could we be overlooking a potential choline crisis in the United Kingdom?, nutritional consultant Emma Derbyshire describes choline as "essential" and "critical for a number of functions across the life cycle".
People in the US currently consume the adequate level of choline: 425mg per day for women and 550mg per day for men.
Derbyshire, who represents a UK consultancy called Nutritional Insight, said the "mounting evidence" of choline’s importance "makes it essential that it does not continue to be overlooked in the UK".
"This is now more important than ever given that accelerated food trends towards plant-based diets/veganism could have further ramifications on choline intake/status.
“Government bodies and organisations should look to extended datasets to include this essential nutrient.
"I'm looking in the first instance to raise awareness. But I also think if people are eating a plant-based diet, particularly if they are women of childbearing age, they should look at supplements," she said.
'There is no justification' for worry, says academic
However, a representative for the British Nutrition Foundation told the BBC that a vegan or plant-based diet "would provide some dietary choline".
"It’s also important to make sure plant-based diets are well balanced to ensure enough nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12 are consumed.
"Having said this, we know that there can be many health benefits of following a more plant-based diet, although this doesn't necessarily mean that animal products have to be excluded completely."
Professor Tom Sanders of King’s College London rejected Derbyshire’s claims about choline, which is also found in nuts, beans, mushrooms and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli.
“There is no justification for suggesting that a plant-based diet risks damaging brain development. My own research on vegans and those of others in Europe and the US finds that the growth and development of vegans and vegetarians is normal.
"Choline can be made in the body and it is also abundant in many plant foods, including soybeans," he said.
"The main hazard of a vegan diet with regard to neurological development is vitamin B12 deficiency, which can readily be avoided by consuming food fortified with the vitamin derived from microbial sources."
Some vegan foods that contain choline
It is recommended that people get between 425mg to 550mg of choline a day. The foods below contain about 30mg to 80mg per half cup or cup (this resource has more information).
- Soy or soymilk (and tofu etc)
- Swiss chard
- Raw banana
- Beans and lentils