What you put in your body really can make a difference to your body and how you feel, but I was fascinated to find out that certain foods can help brain health, including improving mood, reducing cognitive decline as seen in Alzheimer’s, and even improving brain function.
I signed up for a Jim Kwik brain course and one of the topics that came up was brain food. Before I'd vaguely heard of brain food but this was the first time it was presented to me in such a specific context. It's not a long exotic list of obscure food either, its quite a short concise list of every day food, most of which is pretty yummy! Jim Kwik's list is not completely vegan, so I was inspired to do a bit of research and compile a list of specifically vegan plant-based brain food.Your brain needless to say is an incredible supercomputer controlling almost all the functions of your body. At rest, up to 20% of your metabolism is due to brain activity alone, this ramps up with any serious thinking, conversation, or physical activity you do. The brain's high metabolic rate creates a lot of free radicals which can damage your cells, but which is naturally counteracted by antioxidants your body produces. However as we age antioxidant levels dip leading to free radical damage (oxidation) and inflammation (which is a natural response to cell damage). These are associated with eventual brain cell damage and can negatively affect learning, memory, decision-making, and motor function.
Many of the brain diseases linked with older age (e.g. Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, dementia, etc.) are associated with long-term exposure to oxidation and inflammation.
Not limited to the brain, many other diseases are also linked to oxidation and inflammation, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. So it’s not surprising that a lot of the super foods which are good for the brain also have other benefits such as heart health. A healthy cardiovascular system in turn also means good blood flow to the brain.
Key brain healthy ingredients brain foods are antioxidants and healthy fats especially omega 3 fatty acid.
Antioxidants: Antioxidants protect our body from the aforementioned harmful free radicals. It is actually a general term as there are hundreds of different agents which can act as antioxidants, well known ones include vitamin C, vitamin E, co-enzyme Q10. Most plants will have vitamin C, and some also Vitamin E. These are available as supplements too. But for this list other antioxidants will be mentioned, including polyphenols.
Healthy fats include monounsaturated fats and Omega fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acid is a potent anti-inflammatory agent, reduces blood pressure and improves blood circulation, both important factors in preserving brain function. Lower blood pressure has been demonstrated to be good for brain health.
There are three types of Omega 3 fatty acid: alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are the ones which are good for brain health and are found in large amounts in oily fish such as salmon.
The main difference between the non-vegan brain food list and the vegan one is really the fish, however you can get ALA from plant sources, which is what will be listed below, and ALA can be converted by in our body into EPA and DHA. (Vegan Society).
There are other omega fatty acids - omega 6 fatty acids are also good for the heart - but to optimise the effectiveness of omega 3 you want to consume more omega 3 than omega 6.
Here’s a list of top vegan brain food:
Blueberries - famous superfood, yummy, low in calories and high in nutrients. Blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant levels of all common fruits and vegetables, consisting of anthocyanins. Suggested amounts are half to one cup a day. Not sure how realistic it is to literally have one cup every single day, as berries are expensive and tend to come in a lot of plastic packaging. A handful a day seems reasonable though.
Avocados - Contain a lot of healthy fats. Avocados are a substantial source of omega-3 fatty acids, rich in oleic acid (or OEA), an omega-9 fatty acid that’s associated with improved cognition. Monounsaturated fat, which can lower blood pressure and increase blood flow, and also prevent insulin resistance and fight type 2 diabetes, another risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Avocados also contains anti-inflammatory polyphenols and flavonoids.
In addition avocados have a high amount of potassium, which when combined with the omega-3s and oleic acid can reduce blood pressure, and vitamin K, an essential vitamin that the body uses to help the blood clot, create healthy bones, and keep the heart strong.
However as the fats although healthy are still calorific, so you may want to limit your daily portion to one quarter or half an avocado at the most.
Walnuts - Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acid but also possess more polyphenols (ellagitannins in walnuts) than any other type of nut. Ellagitannins possess well known antioxidant and anti-inflammatory bioactivity. A handful of walnuts contains almost twice as much antioxidants as an equivalent amount of any other commonly consumed nut, because of their polyphenol content.
In addition walnuts also contain protein and fibre! Nuts being one important source of protein for vegans.
Suggest 7-10 a day. May not want to go more than 10 a day because the healthy fats are still calorific. Also eating too much may cause inflammation rather than reduce inflammation.
Broccoli - Broccoli is rich in brain-healthy antioxidants like vitamin C and flavonoids. Broccoli also contains compounds called glucosinolates, these can slow the breakdown of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which we need for the central nervous system to perform properly and keep our brains and memories sharp. Low levels of acetylcholine are associated with Alzheimer's.
Broccoli is great source of vitamin K, which is known to enhance cognitive function and improve brainpower. There may be an interaction with people who take drug thinners, such as warfarin, but so long as you discuss this with your healthcare provider it should be fine.
Suggested portion size is around 8 florets. There aren't any rigid guidelines on how much to eat exactly, but eating one portion 3-5 times a week or even more seems fair. It is a vegetable so doesn’t contain calories. If you find eating too much is causing digestive problems such as flatulence, then consider cutting back.
Dark chocolate - Cocoa is packed full of antioxidants, but you do need to be aware that typical sweet chocolate bars are not recommended as a brain food because they are usually lower in cocoa content and contain a lot of sugar. When going for a chocolate bar option you need to go for at least 70% cocoa content, that is dark chocolate.
Eating dark chocolate can also boost your mood as it stimulates the production of endorphins (the ‘feel-good’ chemical) and it contains serotonin, which improves mood and can act as an antidepressant. It also contains several natural stimulants, including caffeine which help enhance focus and concentration,
Enjoy as an occasional treat, no more than 20g a day.
You can also get raw cacao powder without sugar which should be better as it is less processed than commercial dark chocolate bars.
Olive Oil - Normal Olive oil is beneficial but extra virgin olive oil is less processed and contains more contains omega fatty acids and antioxidants.
Recommend approximately 20 ml or two tablespoons a day. Perhaps in salads or with bread, and both olive oil and extra virgin olive oil are safe to cook with.
As olive oil is calorific if you do consume daily you may want to cut back on other types of oils or fats in your diet, eg cut back on butter on bread or replace butter with olive oil.
Turmeric - turmeric contains the bio-active compound curcumin, which is a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory, and associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s in senior citizens in India who eat turmeric regularly. It also helps to improve mood! Recommended daily amount is around 500 mg a day which is around 1 teaspoon a day. Whilst more is not harmful too much may cause digestive problems such as bloating. Turmeric capsules are also available, with black pepper added which enhances the absorption of curcumin.
Chia seeds - great source of omega 3 fatty acid, as well as antioxidants, fibre, and even protein! Recommend around a tablespoon a day is enough. Great in smoothies, drinks, I personally love to mix it in with oatmeal/porridge.
Flax seeds - One tablespoon provides a good amount of protein, fibre, and omega-3 fatty acids along with several important vitamins and minerals. It is high in thiamine a B vitamin that plays a key role in energy metabolism as well as cell function. It’s also a great source of copper, which is involved in brain development, immune health, and iron metabolism. Flaxseed also contains 75–800 times more lignans than other plant foods, lignans are plant chemicals associated with cancer fighting properties.
There are more out there, but I would say these are the key ones, which are relatively accessible!
How much of these do you need to eat every day? Well the field of nutritional science with regard to eating for brain health, anti-cancer and all round longevity is still developing and there is still much research and studying to be done. For now I would just say perhaps just have as many of the above you feel comfortable with. Don’t go overboard with any of them, especially if you really are eating them daily. One time I had too many blueberries which gave me reflux! And too much of the oily foods such as olive oil, avocados and walnuts will cause weight gain, unless that’s what you want!
Some people may find pill supplements such as turmeric pills helpful. There are also vegan dietary supplements specifically for brain health which you could look into, including vegan omega 3 oil capsules typically consisting of algae oil.
I don’t take all of the above daily, I personally tend to enjoy an oatmeal bowl in the mornings with chia seeds, blueberries, walnuts, and a quarter of an avocado. And then later in the day I might have a cup of oat milk with some turmeric, cacao powder and agave syrup
Please note in order to fully obtain the beneficial effects of the superfoods you also need to avoid activities such as smoking and just generally have a good diet and healthy lifestyle too. And if you have any health conditions please also consult the advice and supervision of a trained medical practitioner.
Thanks for reading!
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