Is being a vegetarian healthy for your brain?

Christian 2012/08/26 21:18:25

Eating meat drove the evolution of our big, powerful brain

By Rebecca Searles

If ancient hominids existed today, they might have a bone to pick
with their vegetarian descendants. Meat gave our distant ancestors the
brain power that makes higher-level decision-making—like, becoming a
vegetarian—possible, according to researchers speaking on Feb. 20 at the
2011 AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C.

The modern human brain is two to three times larger than that of our
closest relatives, chimpanzees. But to supply energy to such
metabolically demanding tissue, a distinct trade-off in energy
allocation had to evolve.

In 1992, researchers proposed that this gradual expansion of the
ancestral brain was made possible by switching from a vegetative diet to
a meat-rich, fat-rich diet. As meat became a dietary staple, the gut
shortened, and the brain no longer needed to rely on fuel from muscle
and fat stores in the body. A shorter gut requires a great deal less
energy than the lengthy gut of herbivores. Drawing on the extra energy
resources from a fatty diet, and a shorter gut, the brain could afford
to grow.

Greg Wray, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University, studies the
genetic and molecular systems that co-evolved with this dietary shift to
produce a larger brain. At the meeting, Wray laid out the case for meat
and other protein-rich foods as evolutionary drivers of a bigger, more
complex human brain.

“For a long time now, anthropologists have known that [diet and
cognition] are connected at an organismal level,” Wray said. “But we now
see that there is a connection between these two at the genetic level.”

In order for brain growth to occur, brain cells need energy from
glucose, a basic sugar that fuels cellular activity. As diet changed
over time, the body’s way of converting food into energy may have needed
to evolve to keep up with these new, high-energy demands of the brain.

Wray’s research identified a gene that codes for a glucose transport
molecule—the only known molecule that allows glucose’s entry to the
brain. The human variation of this gene expresses two to three times the
amount of glucose transport molecules than its chimpanzee counterpart.
By examining clinical data, Wray determined this gene to be necessary
for proper human brain development.

“Severe [forms of the gene] can cause genetic microencephaly, [a
disease] in which no glucose can enter the brain, and it dies from
starvation,” Wray said. “So this boost in the brain, we can tell, is
critical for normal brain development.”

Wray’s work could have broad implications for evolutionary medicine,
an understanding of health and disease from the evolutionary

“Any time you take something as poised as a metabolic system and you
drag it off and make it do something different, there will be unintended
consequences,” Wray explained. “Something needs to compensate. So,
probably a lot of medical issues are a result of these unintended

As for vegetarians, Wray says they’ve had plenty to say to him about
his work. He has one piece of advice: Creatine is important. Creatine, a
natural acid gained from eating meat, plays a critical role in
cognition. Wray encourages vegans to consider taking a creatine
supplement, particularly if they’re pregnant.

Rebecca Searles is a biology and psychology student at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She edits Carolina
Scientific, an undergraduate research publication, and she hopes to
pursue a career in science writing. She writes a blog, The Stone Age Mind, for Psychology Today. Reach her at rsearles@email.unc.edu.

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  • ¤Creepy Lumberjack¤ >-QC-< 2012/10/08 16:24:03
    ¤Creepy Lumberjack¤ >-QC-<
    I don't think it is. Eating meat is what made us become more intelligent over millions of years. If you choose to eat only what comes from plants, it won't change anything. If everybody made that choice at once I guess we would become less intelligent in a few million years lol...
  • Christian ¤Creepy... 2012/10/09 03:16:32
    Very true.
  • Daniel 2012/08/27 01:09:43
    I think we're evolving into monkeys. Lol.
  • Fashionable60s 2012/08/26 23:21:34
    You can be a vegetarian but must be mindful of the ten essential amino acids and some B complex vitamins that are necessary for one's cognition. You must combine food that give you all of the above.
  • dandieselonian 2012/08/26 22:46:41
    You need protein thats all there is to it.
  • Lizzeh 2012/08/26 21:53:07
  • METALheadMom 2012/08/26 21:48:11
    IT CAN BE, but it isn't without supplimenting your diet with all the things your HUMAN body was DESIGNED to function properly on. Are YOUR teeth like this? Do you have a stomach like a cow or a chicken? horse
  • Cellar Door 2012/08/26 21:43:42
  • METALhe... Cellar ... 2012/08/26 21:56:54
    Apparently, you have no clue of what a mammal designed to eat both meat and veggies is called. Carnivore isn't it. You don't need meat, you DO need some of the things meat provides - I don't see any of those listed in your rather snotty answer ..... RIGHT, you're a vegetarian - I forgot how superior that makes you..... how dare I assume there is a reason you need more than care to know. Maybe your BRAIN could use a little help???
  • Cellar ... METALhe... 2012/08/26 22:08:03
    Cellar Door
    Stop being so quick to attack, I never said that vegetarians are better than meat-eaters. Where did you see that?
    Did you assume it just because I'm a vegetarian who showed up on a question that's /probably/ going to attract more people who eat meat? Or do you think that every veg*n who shows up is going to attack someone who eats meat? You just..got a little defensive there? And I DO know that humans are designed to be omnivores. Wow, see that? I know the word 'omnivore!' People just focus so much on meat, like they think we really are carnivores, when too much meat is horribly unhealthy for humans.
  • sockpuppet 2012/08/26 21:36:34
    Could be... or it could just be another wagon full of grant money down the toilet. I think vegetarianism is better for digestion, though.
  • heirsoftheking 2012/08/26 21:27:53
    Fasting on the regular basis beats vegetarian and vegan diets a hundred times out of a hundred. Eat what you want and enjoy - and don't forget to fast several times a month.
  • Christian heirsof... 2012/08/26 21:37:44
    Several times a month?
  • Sister Jean 2012/08/26 21:19:21
    Sister Jean
    doubt it
  • Christian Sister ... 2012/08/26 21:22:51
    I love a nice steak.
  • Sister ... Christian 2012/09/06 23:36:00
    Sister Jean
    me too

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