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Is a vegan diet good for brain health?

Is a vegan diet good for brain health?
James

Having a healthy mind has become a common goal amongst the general populous. It’s estimated that global dementia cases will triple by 2050, which has left people looking for a way to decrease their chances of cognitive decline.

Diet is seen as one of the driving forces behind this rapid increase in cognitive issues. It’s no secret that the standard western diet is incredibly poor for your wellbeing, but there is still some confusion around what diet is best for mental performance.

Is a vegan diet good for brain health? Could it be the answer to the demented future that lies ahead for many? In this article, we’ll look to answer these questions and more.

What is brain health?

Brain health is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “the ability to perform all the mental processes of cognition, including the ability to learn and judge, use language, and remember”.

In essence, you need to be able to understand and use information, communicate and remember things that have happened. It’s the absolute basic skills that are required to be fully functional in the modern world. It’s also the things that are lost during cognitive decline.

One key thing to mention is that brain health should be viewed as a spectrum. There is a difference between impaired, adequate and optimal. Of course, we should all be aiming to maximize brain health so we can achieve optimal cognitive function.

Brain
Brain health should be a priority

Does diet impact brain health?

It’s been a long standing myth that diet has little impact on brain health. Many people believe that ‘it’s all hereditary, it’s in your DNA and it can’t be changed by lifestyle intervention’. In reality, that’s far from the truth.

It’s now understood that the food you eat impacts every aspect of your mental performance and wellbeing. It has a profound effect on your mood, mental clarity, processing skills and executive function.

When it comes to stopping the onset of dementia, we also know that prevention is the key because finding a cure has so far proven impossible. The focus is shifting towards diet and lifestyle as a way to stop decline before it starts, with a multitude of studies showing the protective measures of a plant-centred diet.

It’s clear that all the data points in one direction. If you want to perform optimally today and avoid issues in the future; you need to eat the right food.

Eating brain health food
Diet has a huge impact on brain health

What type of foods negatively impact brain health?

1. Processed foods.

Pre-packaged foods are full of saturated and trans-fats, usually contain refined carbohydrates, laced with harmful chemicals and often contain poor-quality meats. They’re literally devastating for brain health.

2. Refined carbohydrates.

White bread, white rice and breakfast cereals are just a few examples of refined carbohydrates. Each of these foods provides little nutrients but cause large fuel imbalances in the brain and body.

3. Processed meats.

Bacon, sausage and delhi meats are all strongly correlated with cognitive decline thanks in part to their high nitrate content and inflammatory nature. One study found that adding one serving per day of these meats to your diet can increase dementia risk by 44%.

4. Red meat.

Packed full of potentially harmful heme iron and often high in saturated fat. It can also raise oxidative stress in the brain, which can cause short and long term loss of cognitive function.

5. Sugar sweetened beverages.

The extremely high amount and fast digestibility of the sugars can lead to huge imbalances and fuel partitioning issues in the brain. Evidence from The Framingham Study showed they’re linked to poor memory and reduced brain size. Scary stuff.

6. Artificially sweetened beverages.

Diet sodas and other enhanced drinks are often sweetened using dangerous chemicals. Studies show that taking just one sip per day can increase your risk of dementia and stroke.

7. Fried foods.

Foods that have been fried in vegetable and rapeseed oils cause dangerous brain inflammation and are linked to poor cognitive function. They are also rich in omega-6 fats, which can cause long-term damage to the brain when consumed in excess.

8. Margarine, frosting and ‘vegan butter’.

These products are full of trans fats and cause high levels of brain inflammation. The fats found in these artificial butters and frostings are can increase your risk of dementia by more than 50%.

9. Donuts, cakes, cookies and pastries.

All of these ultra-processed foods contain dangerous trans fats, full of inflammatory oils and excessively sweetened with sugar. This is an extremely dangerous combination for brain health.

10. Alcohol.

Over consumption of alcohol is associated with cognitive impairment. Probably not surprising.

Brain Food
Junk food is going to impact your brain health

What type of diet positively impacts brain health?

The answer to this one is simple: A vegan diet. Yes, filling your plate with healthy portion of vegetables will give you the best chance of optimal brain health.

Researchers have suggested time and time again that a plant-based diet is good for brain health. It is believed to have a significant impact in arresting cognitive decline through a wide variety of mechanisms.

Reduced oxidative stress, lower levels of inflammation and improved vascular health are just a handful of reasons why plants are such powerful brain food. The plethora of nutrients they possess are also vital in the prevention of cognitive decline.

The backing for plant-based diets as a cure for brain aging is undeniable. Considerable evidence points to the fact that plant matter, including polyphenols and other compounds, modulate pathways in the brain to improve function.

Brain health vegetables
Plants are great for your brain

Is a vegan diet the best diet for brain health?

If you’re asking: ‘Is a vegan diet good for brain health?’, the answer is a resounding yes.

If you’re asking: ‘Is a vegan diet the best diet for brain health?, the answer is yes…in my opinion.

The totality of evidence and research backing plant food to improve brain health is unquestionable and undeniable. It’s hard to find anyone that disagrees with the statement: ‘A plant-predominant diet is best for brain health’.

The only conversation comes down to the ingestion of Omega-3 fatty acids, known as EPA and DHA. These fats are agreed upon as strongly associated with cognitive performance and the prevention of decline. They’re found predominantly in fish.

Most ‘brain health diets’ or ‘MIND diets’ focus on a plant-centric diet that includes eating 1-3 servings of fatty fish per week. Clearly this is not a vegan diet, but it has shown significant benefits across robust studies.

It’s also possible to get the essential EPA and DHA required for optimal brain health from vegan sources. They’re found in greatest quantities within algae and have now been packaged into a supplement. It’s also possible to obtain omega-3’s from certain nuts and seeds, although not in their most bioavailable form.

In my opinion: The best diet for brain health is a vegan diet that’s supplemented with EPA and DHA. It gains all the benefits of the popular ‘brain health’ diets without the risks that come with ingesting potentially toxic fish.

Vegan brain food
Vegan food is great for brain health

Why is a vegan diet good for brain health?

1. It has a focus on vegetables.

Eating a variety of vegetables allows you to gain most of the valuable nutrients associated with brain health. Studies show that higher vegetable intake may be associated with slower cognitive decline.

2. It includes plenty of fruit.

Multiple fruits have been shown to have a positive impact on brain health thanks to their vast nutrient profile. One study looked at a variety of fruits and showed they can benefit brain health by reducing oxidative stress.

3. It’s often rich in nuts.

Eating nuts provides your brain with invaluable anti-oxidants and vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids. A 2014 study showed that overall nut intake was associated with better brain function.

4. It usually includes beans.

Eating beans lentils and legumes provides the brain with a steady fuel source and plenty of nutrients. A 2017 longitudinal study found that increased bean consumption was associated with improved cognitive performance. 

5. It includes soy products.

Most vegan diets centre around soy products like tofu, tempeh and soy milk. These products contain a type of polyphenol called ‘isoflavones’, which can boost brain health. A recent systemic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials concluded that soy isoflavones may improve cognitive function in adults.

6. It’s naturally high in fiber.

Eating fibre rich foods can lower inflammation in the body and quieten hyperactive immune cells in the brain. One interesting study looked at the attentiveness of children based on fiber intake and discovered that kids with consuming more dietary fiber exhibited greater cognitive performance.

7. It often includes whole-grains.

Whole grains are rich in B vitamins that help to dampen inflammation in the brain. The importance of these vitamins should not be underestimated, with a systematic review showing their ability to fight neurological disorder and improve overall mood.

8. It omits animal products.

Many animal products are linked to impaired brain health and cognitive decline. Naturally avoiding harmful processed meats, red meats and cheeses will improve your chances of optimal mental performance.

9. It’s low in saturated fat.

Saturated fat is a hot topic in the nutrition world. Although much of its role in the body is still under debate; omitting it from your diet is probably the safest choice. If you need proof; a study has shown that increased saturated fat intake is associated with worse cognitive and verbal memory.

10. It promotes a healthy body weight.

Following a plant-based diet consistently associated with having a healthy body weight and BMI. Evidence suggests that obesity is associated with reduced cognitive function, plasticity and brain volume. Sticking to a vegan diet can give you a greater chance of maintaining a healthy weight, which can help to support brain health.

Man holding vegan food
Vegan food is ideal fuel for the brain

Summing up

Is a vegan diet good for brain health? I personally feel that the multitude of points to the fact that it’s better than good. I would say that it’s optimal.

It’s clear that many of the issues surrounding brain health centre around oxidative stress, inflammation, lack of nutrients and insufficient fuelling.

By default; a whole-foods vegan diet is anti-inflammatory, reduces oxidative stress, highly nutrient dense and provides a steady source of fuel for the brain. In essence; it ticks all the boxes.

My opinion is that those looking to maximize brain health should eat a whole-foods plant-based diet that’s diverse enough to obtain as many nutrients as possible. In addition, I would recommend supplementing with vitamin B12 and algae derived DHA/EPA.

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