2 Key Brain Health Nutrients That Are Lacking in a Plant-Based Diet

2 Key Brain Health Nutrients That Are Lacking in a Plant-Based Diet

(Last Updated On: September 1, 2019)


Brain health and plant-based diet nutrients

More people are adopting a plant-based diet these days. Some people choose to a eat mostly plant-based diet for ethical reasons or due to concerns about the environment. Others choose to fill their plate with plants for health reasons. Studies suggest that eating a diet that emphasizes mostly plant-based foods may have considerable health perks. For example, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based foods, although it includes fish and modest amounts of poultry too, has been linked to a lower risk of chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and some forms of cancer.

Despite their abundance of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, plant-based diets are deficient in some key nutrients. A plant-based diet can be healthy, but it takes planning and sometimes supplementation to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Two key nutrients that are important for brain and nervous system health are low or lacking in plant-based foods. If you eat a plant-based diet, you’ll need to make an extra effort to ensure that you get enough of these nutrients. Let’s look at each one.

Vitamin B 12

Vitamin B 12 is necessary for healthy red blood cell production. That’s why people who are deficient in this vitamin can develop anemia. However, you also need vitamin B 12 for the health of your brain and nervous system. A deficiency of this vitamin can cause permanent nerve damage or even death. What’s more, vitamin B 12 is naturally found only in animal-based foods. Meat and dairy are among the best sources.

You may have heard that spirulina, A type of blue-green algae contains vitamin B 12. The form of vitamin B 12 In spirulina is a vitamin B 12 analog and doesn’t have true B12 activity. Some foods such as milk, yogurt, and cereal are fortified with vitamin B 12.  But it’s difficult to get enough vitamin B 12 if you only eat a plant-based diet. Fortunately, your liver can store enough vitamin B12 to avoid a full-blown deficiency for several years. But if you eat an exclusively plant-based diet for many years, you may eventually deplete your liver stores of this important vitamin. If you are vegetarian or vegan, particularly if you’re vegan, talk to your doctor about taking a supplement. Ask them to check your vitamin B 12 level too. Considering the risks of being too low, it’s important to know where you stand.


Choline is another nutrient that may be deficient in a plant-based diet. Research shows that choline is important for brain and liver health. In fact, the Institute of Medicine officially recognized it as an essential nutrient in 1998. Your body can make some choline but not enough to meet your body’s requirements. Recommendations by the Institute of Medicine are that men get 550 milligrams of choline daily and women 425 milligrams each day.

Studies reveal that even omnivores that eat a varied diet may not get enough choline. Vegans are at the highest risk since it’s found mainly in meat, eggs, and dairy. Vegetarians can more easily meet their body’s choline needs since they can get choline from eggs and dairy. In fact, eggs contain high levels of choline, as long as you eat the yolk. A medium egg contains around 130 milligrams.

Although a plant-based diet is lower in choline, some contain modest amounts of this nutrient. Uncooked quinoa is a good source with a half cup containing 60 milligrams. Wheat germ is an excellent source of many B-vitamins but also contains a substantial amount of choline, 50 grams per 2 tablespoons. Soy, potatoes, and a number of vegetables contain small amounts too. Of the common vegetables people eat, broccoli is one of the most concentrated in choline. It contains 31 milligrams per serving. Compare this to beef liver which has a whopping 290 milligrams of choline per serving.

Why is it so important to get enough choline in your diet? You need it to synthesize adequate amounts of certain neurotransmitters, particularly acetylcholine, which is important for movement, memory, and nervous system function. Choline deficiency is also linked with a higher risk of atherosclerotic heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. In addition, some studies link low choline intake with an increase in markers of inflammation. Some studies have also found that supplementing with choline improved cognitive performance. However, other studies fail to show this.

Certain people have higher choline requirements than others. For example, women need more choline during pregnancy. There’s also some evidence that women need more after menopause. If you do a lot of endurance exercise or drink substantial amounts of alcohol, your choline requirements will be higher too.

The best way to meet your choline needs if you don’t consume animal foods is to eat a variety of plant-based foods and include soy, wheat germ, and seeds in your diet. But as you can see by the recommended intakes established by the Institute of Medicine, you’ll have a hard time doing it if you eat a plant-based diet unless you plan carefully.

As with vitamin B12, choline supplements are available. Taking supplemental choline may be a necessity for people who eat a strictly vegan diet as it’s hard to get enough without at least consuming eggs and dairy. But you can also get too much choline if you supplement too aggressively. Taking too much choline is linked with undesirable side effects including a fishy body odor, sweating, nausea, and a drop in blood pressure. The upper limit for safety is 3,500 milligrams daily. Talk to your physician about whether you need a choline supplement.

The Bottom Line

Adding more plants to your diet is a healthy move! A carefully planned plant-based diet can also be beneficial, but make sure you’re getting enough of these two key nutrients that are often lacking in a strictly plant-based diet.



·        Nutr Rev. 2009 Nov; 67(11): 615–623.doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00246.x

·        ARYA Atheroscler. 2011 Summer; 7(2): 78–86.

·        Vegan Society. “2 Key Brain Health Nutrients That Are Lacking in a Plant-Based Diet”


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