Is a Vegetarian Diet Bad for Your Brain?

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If creatine is important for brain functioning and vegetarians have lower creatine levels, could a vegetarian or vegan diet have a negative impact on cognitive function?

Bea writes: “Can you comment on research showing that creatine supplements can improve cognitive function in vegetarians? Do I need to worry about my vegan diet hurting my brain?”

If you’ve heard much about creatine, you’ve probably heard it in the context of enhancing athletic performance. My colleague, Brock Armstrong, recently devoted an episode of the Get-Fit Guy podcast to the potential uses of creatine to build muscle.

But creatine has also been investigated as potential a nootropic. A nootropic is a substance that enhances brain function or cognition.

Creatine is a non-essential amino acid, which means that our bodies have the ability to manufacture it from other amino acids. However, we can also get creatine from our diets. Meat, poultry and fish are the primary sources of creatine. Not surprisingly, vegetarians and vegans have lower levels of creatine in their blood and muscle tissue than meat eaters.

Is a Vegetarian Diet Bad for Your Brain?

If creatine is important for brain functioning and vegetarians have lower creatine levels, could a vegetarian or vegan diet have a negative impact on cognitive function?

Observational data suggest that lifelong vegetarians and vegans actually have a lower risk of dementia than meat eaters. Now, this may not have to do directly with the amount of animal products they do or don’t consume. It could be due to a higher intake of vegetables or legumes, for example. Or it could have to do with the fact that vegetarians are statistically more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke or any number of other lifestyle factors. That’s the difficulty with observational data; it’s impossible to prove cause and effect.

There’s little evidence to suggest that a vegetarian or vegan diet impairs brain function or increases the risk of cognitive decline.

Should Vegetarians Take Creatine?

Since vegetarians have lower creatine levels, would there be any benefit to taking creatine supplements?

One study compared the effects of creatine supplementation on healthy young women who were either vegetarians or meat eaters.This was a short study, lasting just five days, and the subjects took 20 grams of creatine per day or a placebo. The good news is that the omnivores and vegetarians performed about the same on the initial tests, which again suggests that a vegetarian diet was not negatively affecting their brain function. The bad news is the the supplement didn’t seem to do a whole lot for either group.

Another smaller but longer study involving only vegetarians found that 5 grams of creatine a day for six weeks led to some improvements in performance on standardized tests of cognitive function in healthy young subjects. They tested things like reaction time, short term recall, and vigilance. It’s not clear that the improvements measured by the scientists would be significant enough to translate into any meaningful impact on daily life, such as making them safer drivers or helping them remember their gym locker combination.

At this point, it’s still unclear whether taking a creatine supplement would produce any meaningful benefits for vegetarians.

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