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To meat or no to meat? When it comes to your brain’s health, the evidence can be a bit conflicting.
In some cases, a wholly vegetable-based diet can actually put you at a deficit for certain brain-boosting nutrients. A 2017 blog from Psychology Today, for instance, lists several vitamins and minerals your brain craves but most vegetarian diets lack. Vitamin A, the author points out, offers poor bioavailability when taken from plant sources: your body needs to convert the carotenoids found in bright red, yellow and orange plants into retinol before it turns it into vitamin A, a process that is up to 24 times more difficult for your body to complete when compared to animal sources like dairy and organ meats.
On the other hand, much research supports the brain benefits of a diet rich in leafy greens, whole grains and juicy, vitamin-rich fruits. Harvard Medical School counts several categories of foods common in vegetarian and vegan diets as brain boosters clinically proven to aid cognition and mental health, including flavonoid-rich berries, greens like kale, and walnuts—not surprising, considering they resemble the very organ they are purported to help. A 2016 study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also championed leafy greens, concluding that they may be able to help older adults access and utilize knowledge gained over their lifetime.
In the end, whether you decide to go fully green, imbibe in animal products here and there, or include meat in every meal, the best and safest plan of attack is to reach for daily supplementation to shore up the nutrients you may be missing. Some of the most common that you should consider, especially if you shun meat: folic acid, vitamins A, B6 and B12, and Omega-3 fatty acids. (Though it is interesting to note one study did find creatine supplementation benefitted vegetarians’ neurocognitive function, since it cannot be found in plant sources you’d have to shirk your lifestyle altogether to reap its benefits.)