As we age, our cognitive abilities can decline, making it challenging to complete even simple tasks. Fortunately, scientific studies show that plant-based diets can have a positive impact on brain health and cognitive function. This post will not only explore the science behind diet and brain health, but also give practical tips for changing your lifestyle to stay sharp.
How Plant-Based Diets Improve Brain Health
First, let's look at some of the research. Science tells us again and again that plant-based diets improve brain function in several ways. Let's look at some of the heavy hitters.
First up is a study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. Researchers found that a diet high in fruits, veggies, nuts, and legumes was linked with a lower risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. The study followed over 2,000 adults over the age of 65 for four years. Those who ate a more plant-based diet had better brain function.
Similarly, this study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a higher intake of flavanoids, which are found in plant-based foods like berries, dark chocolate, and tea, was associated with better cognitive function and a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease. The study followed over 2,800 adults for 20 years and found that those with the highest flavanoid intake had better brain function and a 40% lower risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Again, a review article published in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology analyzed several studies on the link between plant-based diets and cognitive function in older adults. The review found that vegan diets were linked with better cognitive function, including improved memory and executive function.
Furthermore, this study from the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology found that plant-based diets were associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline in older adults.
Even more, these findings are supported by the work of Dr. Neal Barnard, a prominent medical professional and researcher in the field of plant-based diets and brain health.
The Best Plant-Based Foods for Brain Health
Not all plants are created equal when it comes to brain health.
Some foods are particularly good for cognitive health due to their high content of brain-boosting nutrients.
1. Dark leafy greens
For example, kale, spinach, and collard greens are rich in folate, which has been shown to improve brain function.
Need help eating more of them? Here's how to sneak leafy greens into your diet, even if they're not your favorite.
2. Nuts and seeds
These are high in healthy fats, which are important for brain health.
Yes, you can simply snack on raw nuts but if you're feeling like eating outside the box, try this vegan spinach artichoke dip, made with cashews. Got a sweet tooth? Opt for this peanut butter green smoothie.
Particularly blueberries and strawberries, which are rich in antioxidants that can protect the brain from oxidative stress.
And yes, the benefits still apply even when you enjoy berries in dessert recipes, like this vegan blueberry crisp.
Tips for Incorporating Plant-Based Foods into Your Diet
If you're new to plant-based eating, it can be challenging to know where to start. In this section, we'll provide tips for incorporating plant-based foods into your diet and life.
1. How to plan balanced meals
Believe it or not, there is no perfect formula to a healthy meal. Simply make it your goal to include a wide variety of plant-based foods into your diet. For example, aim for lots of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. As a result of eating this way, you'll receive a range of nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein.
2. The best plant-based swaps
One of the easiest ways to kick-start your plant-based life is to “veganize” some of your favorite Standard American fare with whole food plant-based ingredient substitutions. Here are some of our favorite plant-based swaps.
3. Navigating social situations and dining out
Our diets connect us to each other, to our traditions and culture, family and friends. So when we make the move to plants, it can feel not only overwhelming, but a bit disorienting and isolating. First, know that if a family member or friend is having a hard time with your new lifestyle, know that it's not really about you at all. Second, get these tips for dealing with unsupportive family.
As for dining out, here's how to order plant-based at any restaurant.
4. How can I get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
Probably the top nutritious-related concern we get from plant-based beginners: where will I get my protein?! Good news: there are so many sources of plant-based protein and you don't need as much as you think anyhow.
5. Can I get iron without meat?
Heard that meat is the only good source of iron and that vegans are not getting enough of this essential mineral? This is a common myth and we're happy to dispel it. The truth is, there are so many vegan foods with iron and, as a bonus, they contain additional components that make the iron absorbable by the body in optimal amounts.
6. Where do you get calcium without dairy?
You don't need dairy to get calcium or to achieve strong bones. These non-dairy sources of calcium will do the trick just fine.
Changing yoru diet can feel daunting but with the right tools you can make the transition a whole lot easier and start reaping the benefits for your brain health.
4 ways to know you're eating well for your brain
Eating a plant-based diet is a great way to support brain health, but how do you know you're eating well? Here are some signs that you're on the right track:
1. Your meals are colorful
A wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables provide different phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that are essential for brain health. Aim to fill your plate with a rainbow of colors to ensure you're getting a diverse array of nutrients.
2. You're consuming healthy fats
Healthy fats like those found in nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil are important for brain health. They provide the building blocks for cell membranes in the brain and can also reduce inflammation.
3. You're avoiding processed foods
Processed foods like chips, candy, and soda are often high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and preservatives that can damage the brain. Try to minimize your intake of these foods and opt for whole, minimally processed foods instead.
4. You're getting enough protein
Protein is important for brain function and helps keep you feeling full and satisfied. That said, we don't need to obsess over it. It's easy to get all you need on a plant-based diet. Make sure you're incorporating sources of plant-based protein like beans, lentils, tofu, and tempeh into your meals.
5. You're staying hydrated
Dehydration can impair cognitive function, so it's essential to stay hydrated throughout the day. Aim to drink at least 8-10 cups of water per day, and incorporate hydrating foods like cucumbers, watermelon, and celery into your meals.
By following these guidelines, you can ensure that you're nourishing your brain with the nutrients it needs to function at its best.
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