Plant-based diets should be facts-based, too.

With modern popularization of vegan and vegetarian diets, especially glamorized and hyped through social media success stories and before & after photos, it’s easy to assume that simply eliminating meat and animal products is a cure-all for losing excess weight and improving overall wellbeing.

There are indeed numerous health benefits to vegan and vegetarian diets, including improvement of cognitive function and prevention of cancers and diseases, but it can be dangerous to eliminate entire food groups or switch to a restrictive diet without first doing research and talking to your physician.

Without realizing it, you may be depriving yourself of essential macro- and micronutrients. Furthermore, trying to make up for presumed deficiencies can backfire, as excess intake of certain vitamins and minerals can actually harm your health. It is thus critical to take a well-informed and responsible approach to adopting such a radical dietary modification. Nonetheless, veganism and vegetarianism can truly be beneficial to brain health and for preventing diseases when approached in the right way.

When first deciding to eat vegan or vegetarian, people easily fall victim to packaged chips, microwave dinners, heavy snacks, and desserts with the impression that being labeled “vegan” makes these foods inherently healthy.

While there is nothing wrong with indulging in a treat every once in a while, such foods become a problem when these high-calorie, imbalanced foods lack essential vitamins and minerals for maintenance of health and mental clarity. Vegans and vegetarians should instead consider building their meals from nutrient-dense whole foods to establish an energizing and sustainable lifestyle.

Vegan and vegetarian diets often lack some key nutrients that meat and animal products provide in abundance. Among these are omega fats, complete proteins, vitamin B, and a variety of minerals. The following tips will help you learn how to incorporate these into your diet:

  1. A variety of healthy, unsaturated fats1 are important to optimize brain health due to their anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective nature. Although foods like avocados, olive oil, and nuts contain plenty of “good” fats, they are high in omega-6 (pro-inflammatory) and low in omega-3 (anti-inflammatory). To support brain function and prevent neurodegeneration, vegans and vegetarians should consider taking fish oil supplements to increase omega-3 in their diet. If you’d prefer a purely vegan option2 with zero animal products, you may consider adding flax, chia, or hemp seeds to non-dairy yogurts and smoothies as a source of healthy omega-3 fats!
  2. If you’ve heard of the nine essential amino acids, you may be familiar with the concept of complete protein sources. In essence, there are certain proteins your body cannot build or produce on its own that come from meat, dairy, and eggs. The essential amino acids in these foods provide our bodies with the materials needed to make neurotransmitters (chemicals for communication in the brain), build connective tissue, and insulate our brain cells for fluid, efficient mental processing. For the vegan and vegetarian diet, foods3 such as soy, quinoa, hemp seeds, and edamame beans contain all of these essential amino acids, making them complete protein sources. Eating whole grains with legumes (like brown rice with beans or pita with hummus) is a simple way to create complete protein sources and provide your body with the essential amino acids needed for optimal health and brain function.
  3. Numerous clinical and laboratory studies have shown that Vitamin B deficiencies are associated with decreased cognitive function, but results were inconclusive about whether it slows aging or prevents neurological diseases. It’s ultimately important to eat a variety of vitamins for maintaining motivation and mental clarity, and with Vitamin B found mostly in dairy products and eggs, a vegan or vegetarian diet should include fortified cereals, tofu, and nut milks to satisfy the body’s vitamin needs. Other vitamins such as C and D come from fruits, vegetables, and sunlight, so vegan and vegetarian diets are less likely to be deficient in these.
  4. Lastly, minerals including iron, calcium, zinc, and iodine are often missing from diets that don’t include meat and animal products. Mineral deficiencies are associated with disrupting mood and mental clarity. Furthermore, they are critical in maintaining bone health, implementing hormone production, and facilitating communication among brain cells. Salt, beans, vegetables, nuts, and seeds contain trace amounts of minerals needed in the body, so eating a varied diet based on whole foods is the best way to ensure complete nutrition sources. However, be careful taking concentrated supplements because an excess of vitamins and minerals can cause health problems. If you’re experiencing fatigue, mental fog, or other deficiency symptoms, you should talk to your doctor to find out whether you need to incorporate supplements4 into your diet as well.

Overall, choosing a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle can be a fantastic way to lose excess weight, improve mental clarity and function, and prevent diseases or cancers down the road. Due to the plant-based foods that people rely on when eliminating meat and animal products, vegans and vegetarians have the potential to develop a sustainable lifestyle that is healthier than a typical, all-inclusive diet. With the support of a healthcare provider and sufficient knowledge about dietary needs, making the switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet could be an amazing way to improve your daily life and wellbeing!