How necessary is Meat for a Healthy Brain?
In a world abundant with edible matter, it is necessary that you choose your diet carefully as it will determine your physical and mental health.
Just like heart, lungs or muscles, our brain too requires proper nutrients in order to improve its cognitive powers and retention areas.
Choosing the Right Diet… How does one choose the perfect diet?
While most people stick to diets of their own personal preferences, many other factors are also involved like health regulations, ailments and religious beliefs.
Given a choice, would you choose to be a Vegan, vegetarian or a non-vegetarian?
Maybe you should read on before deciding upon a category… It is a fact that the evolution of man is entwined with meat in numerous ways. Cooperative hunting promoted the development of civilisation. Killing animals and eating their meat helped the primitive man to develop larger brains and it contributed to the evolution of human intelligence over a period of a few million years.
Although this theory is not the first such affirmation from archaeologists and evolutionary biologists, the new age studies too demonstrate that it would have been biologically unlikely for humans to evolve such a large brain on a raw, vegan diet. Animal meat consumption may have played a big part in pushing human up the evolution ladder.
The History of Meat consumption among primates
Around 6 million years ago, primates started moving from the tropical forests into the savannahs. Unlike today, these prehistoric regions were humid and also provided a year-round supply of fruit and vegetables. But, around 3 million years ago, the climate started changing and these savannahs almost dried up along with their supply of fruits and vegetables. This lead to the extinction of many mammals, along with certain categories of primates, but the rest lot learnt to adapt. As they could not get hold of edible plants, they started making up for it by eating meat.
This choice of primates to compensate the lack of edible plants with meat is the sole reason behind the evolution of man as an advanced being. This has proof as the archaeologists specialising in Ethiopian working sites have come across animal remains which belong to an era that is 2.6 million years old. The cut marks and scars found on these remains hint that these animals were killed for food.
According to lead author and archaeologist, Dominguez-Rodrigo, only two types of primates survived the climate change that took place, the vegans and the meat eaters. Out of the two only the meat eaters evolved a bigger brain compared to their Vegan counterparts. Thus, humans became the meat eaters.
Vegans versus Meat eating primates
Study 1: A study, published in October 2012 in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ focused on the brain sizes of various primates. They found that for the most part, larger bodies have larger brains across species. But this phenomenon is broken by humans as they seem to have exceptionally large brains, rich in neurons, though they are comparatively smaller beings.
Gorillas, which are thrice the size of humans, do not have such neuron-rich brains as human beings. The answer is simple! The vegan diet of Gorillas which is devoid of animal protein makes it necessary for them to consume thrice the amount of calories for their brains to grow big enough to suit their bodies.
Study 2: Another study published in the journal PLoS ONE October 2012 edition examined looked closely at the 1.5 million year old remains of a toddler who seems to have died of malnutrition. The remains point out how the toddler suffered from a condition called ‘porotic hyperostosis’ which is caused by lack of iron and vitamins B9 and B12 in one’s diet.
As the child was only an infant, it means that its mother did not eat the required amount of meat or that the child itself did not consume the necessary nutrients which are usually derived from eggs and meat. Either way, this finding cements the fact that even a million years ago, meat used to be an integral part of the human diet.
Minerals such as iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and fatty acids are essential to build and maintain a more complex brain.
Researchers have found that omega-3 fatty acids, chiefly DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are crucial for human cognitive health. Omega-3 fatty acid is found primarily in oily, wild fish, such as Salmon and Tuna. Pasture-raised animals too are a good source of these fatty acids.
Although plants contain many of the same nutrients, these nutrients cannot be directly used by humans, unlike in meat. For instance, red meat is rich in iron which is derived from haemoglobin, which is more easily absorbed than the non-haemoglobin forms common in vegetables and leaves. Also, a particular type of compounds named phytates makes it impossible for the iron found in plants to reach the body. Thus, it shows how meat is a much healthier and nutrient rich dietary option for iron.
For instance, you will have to eat about five bowls of spinach to match the iron content that you could derive from consuming a single steak.
The implications of a non-meat diet for cognitive health are huge. There is a clear, but a thin under appreciated link between meat and the mind. Most of the brain disorders can be linked to the lack of meat-nutrients. The absence of these crucial nutrients could lead to autism, depression, low IQ, dementia and so many other problems. Iron found in meat plays a great role in the proper brain development of a foetus. Zinc derived from meat is imperative for learning and memory, while vitamin B12 is responsible for the sheaths that provide protection to the nerves.
Related Case Studies…
Researchers suspected that lack of meat in some poor rural villages was contributing to countless childhood disorders, including stunted growth, lower immunity levels, social disabilities and difficulties to perform well academically. Owing to this, they set out to study the effects of chronic malnourishment in countries like Mexico, Kenya and Egypt. During the study they found that children who consumed meat and milk products more scored well on cognitive and behavioural tests, and were physically fitter. But was the absence of meat really to blame?
1/2. Neumann trial project in Kenya…
In order to confirm the facts, the researchers needed to conduct a controlled study. A famous nutritionist named Neumann began a trial project in Kenya. She, along with her team selected 12 schools with children in the age of group of 6 to 14.
For the purpose of this study, Neumann’s team gave some of the children mid morning snacks. The chosen schools were divided into four groups: The control group was not given a snack, whereas the other three received variations of a traditional porridge that is made of maize (corn), beans and greens, called githeri. One group received a very basic version; the second received basic githeri along with a glass of milk, and the third version included meat. All the four versions were balanced to contain the same amount of calories.
The study continued for more than 2 years and spanned across 2 team members, the first with 525 students and the second with 375. The academic performance and the physical health of the students were constantly measured.
Compared to the other two groups, students in the meat group had greater muscle mass and strength and displayed fewer health problems. They even showcased greater leadership qualities in the playground. Their cognitive performance was stronger than the other groups and they outperformed other groups in the subjects like mathematics and other languages.
Neumann was not at all surprised by the results. She found that the typical diet in rural Kenya does not include many nutrients that help the brain to grow. The challenge was to get people to consume more meat, which is widely regarded as too expensive. Neumann is of the opinion that brain can get nourishment from pretty much any animal matter- even a worm, termite or a caterpillar would do the job.
2/2. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles study…
California Studies have also started to shed some light on how meat helps in developing the brain. Low iron levels in children are always linked with poor concentration and diminished IQ levels. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in California conducted a study using magnetic resonance imaging.
Peterson and his colleagues recorded the development of the brains of infants of 40 adolescent mothers, known to have iron deficiency. Though many women in the group were regularly consuming iron tablets, about 58% had lower iron levels and about 14% were diagnosed with mild anaemia.
Peterson, points out how neurons become increasingly complex as the brain develops. They form branch-like dendrites covered with spines, just like a growing tree. The pictures of brain that were collected by his team threw light on the correlation between the iron levels in the mother’s diet and the complexity of the brain of the child. It is more to do with the stage of life of a person. For instance, pregnant women need more iron, so do babies and children. Also, it is found that the higher the iron intake throughout pregnancy, the more mature or the more complex grey matter was at the time of birth. To conclude, eating meat in a balanced way and in limit helps the development of brain.
Consumption of too little can delay development and cognition. On the other hand, too much, particularly if it is low quality and mass produced, is associated with other health concerns like cancerous growth, memory problems and heart disorders.