Health & Nutrition

Plant-Powered Brain Health

How being vegan or vegetarian can save your brain

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’re ahead of the game in protecting your brain. Studies suggest a plant-based diet can support cognitive health and protect against dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Be sure you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 and other nutrients critical for cognitive health, and avoid sugar, processed foods and high levels of fat. Here’s how being vegan or vegetarian can save your brain.

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1. It’s high in protective antioxidants.

The brain is particularly vulnerable to free-radical damage, known to play an important role cognitive impairment and dementia, especially Alzheimer’s. Antioxidants inactivate damaging free radicals, inhibit inflammation and may reduce the formation of amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. A plant-based diet is higher in antioxidants, especially brain-protective nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene, and research shows vegetarians have a superior antioxidant status. Some studies also suggests higher blood levels of beta-carotene are linked with better memory performance and in other research, people who followed a diet higher in vegetables had better overall cognition.

2. It keeps you slim.

Obesity and its related metabolic and vascular conditions are strongly related to Alzheimer’s. Obesity as a trigger for vascular dementia decreases blood supply to the brain and increases fat cells that damage brain matter, leading to loss of cognitive and intellectual function. People who follow a plant-based diet are less likely to be obese or overweight—in some studies, almost 50 percent less likely—even after controlling for calorie consumption.

A plant-based diet is higher in antioxidants, especially brain-protective nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene.

3. It puts out the fire.

Inflammation is strongly associated with cognitive decline. Higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and other markers of inflammation have been linked with increased risk of dementia, and recent studies show lower inflammation is directly related to healthy brain aging. Vegans and vegetarians have reduced CRP levels, and in one review, a plant-based diet significantly improved inflammatory markers. The reason: plant-based diets not only have a higher ratio of anti-inflammatory compounds like antioxidants, but also avoid pro-inflammatory compounds found in animal products.

4. It’s low in saturated fat and free from cholesterol.

Diets high in cholesterol and/or saturated fats are detrimental to cognitive performance, impairing memory and impacting brain structures. In studies, higher intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol were associated with a decline in performance on memory and recall tests, impaired cognitive and verbal memory, and increased neuroinflammation. And consuming full-fat dairy products, red meat, and meat products is linked with a decline in cognitive function. By contrast, higher intake of monounsaturated fats (like those found in avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds) may improve cognition and verbal memory.

Related: Eating for Brain Health

5. Plants are loaded with fiber.

A number of studies suggest a diet rich in fiber may protect against Alzheimer’s. Neurobiological processes involved in cognition are profoundly influenced by gut bacteria, and dysbiosis—a loss of number and diversity in gut microbiota—has been linked with cognitive impairment. Studies suggest a healthy microbiome may improve cognition and memory and protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia, in part by supporting short-chain fatty acids that interfere with the formation of amyloid plaques. A diet rich in fiber plays a critical role in the composition of gut microbiota. Research shows plant-based diets increase the diversity of gut bacteria, and in one study, switching from an animal-based to a plant-based diet changed gut microbial activity in only five days.