Going Vegetarian? Don’t Forget Your Brain Health.
There was a time when deciding to follow a vegetarian diet would earn ridicule and frowns. Thankfully, it’s not so anymore. Over the past few years, many people around the world have embraced vegetarianism for a variety of reasons – ranging from health concerns to environmental awareness.
But the question always remains, will cutting off animal-based foodstuff completely from your diet harm you? Animal-based foodstuff is an abundant source of nutrients vital for the optimal functioning of the human body, and particularly the brain. Hence, the concern is legitimate.
Is Vegetarianism bad for your brain?
Many of the nutrients we need for optimal brain functions are far easier to come by in animal-based foods. Then there’s the matter of absorption as well – plant-based food may have the nutrients you need, but your body won’t be able to absorb them as easily.
That said, vegetarianism is not inherently harmful to your brain. Many of the brain-specific diets like the Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diets are very similar to vegetarian and vegan diets. Turning vegetarian means you’ll automatically eat a larger amount of greens, fruits, and nuts as part of your daily diet, and that is good news for your brain.
What is needed, therefore, is awareness and balance. There are certain nutrients you may miss out on after turning vegetarian, and you need to find supplementary foodstuff within your diet and adjust intake amounts in accordance with your needs.
Brain nutrients you need to be mindful about
Vitamin B-12 is essential for your brain health; a deficiency can lead to brain fatigue, Depression, neurological problems, and even Dementia in advanced age. Our gut makes some amount of vitamin B-12 on its own but that is far below the recommended intake. It needs to be supplemented by our diet. Problem is, it is only found in animal-based food. Hence turning vegetarian or vegan can lead to severe Vitamin B-12 deficiency.
Solution: Vitamin B-12 supplements need to be incorporated in the daily diet. Also, soy-based products and vitamin-fortified nutritional yeast are good and vegetarian-friendly sources of vitamin B-12.
Omega-3 fatty acids
DHA, a variety of Omega-3 fats are absolutely essential for brain health and development. It is responsible for several cognitive functions, like mental flexibility, verbal and non-verbal reasoning, working memory, and vocabulary building.
While Omega-3 can be found in plant sources, the DHA variant is almost exclusively found in eggs and seafood. Also, plant-based Omega-3 doesn’t get absorbed by the body as efficiently as the animal-based one.
Solution: Walnuts, ground flaxseed, and avocado are good sources of omega-3 in plant-based food. But these need to be consumed in a bigger quantity than their animal-based counterparts in order for them to work. You can also take supplements made from algae with your diet which is a vegetarian and vegan-friendly source of omega-3 acids.
Iron and Zinc
Both Iron and Zinc are essential for nerve cell growth and forming synaptic connections. Deficiency of these nutrients can severely impair learning and memory, contribute to ‘brain fog’ or mental confusion, and affect blood circulation in the hippocampus region of the brain – the one responsible for reasoning and executive functioning.
Lentils, legumes, dried beans, dark leafy green vegetables, and whole-grain products are good sources of iron and zinc, but they are not easily absorbed by the body. Animal sources like red meat get absorbed a lot more fully and easily.
Solution: to balance this out, you need to increase the portion of iron and zinc sources by a large amount in your diet. Taking fortified foods and supplements also help.
Iodine deficiency can lead to severe brain damage and impair the functions of thyroid hormone in your brain. Iodine is most commonly sourced from animal protein like fish, although dairy products like cheese are also a good source of it. Multiple studies have found that iodine deficiency is comparatively more common in vegetarians, and in particular vegans.
Solution: Use iodized salt instead of common salt to balance this problem out. About ¼ teaspoon of iodized salt a day can provide you with an optimal amount of iodine. If you are a vegetarian, you can also increase dairy intake to balance out the meatless diet.
Any kind of drastic or large-scale dietary change can affect your brain health. The key is to take things slowly and go through a step-by-step transition process. Make sure to consult your doctor or a dietitian for advice on the particular type and amount of foods you need to consume for a successful transition.