Recently, there has been a surge in plant-based eating. The public is becoming more aware of the ramifications of eating meat-centric meals. Whether your reasons for choosing plants over a dead carcass are for personal health, concern regarding animals, or environmental, eating plants can change our world. There is a lot of information about the health benefits, but plant-based eating can also benefit our brain in unexpected and profound ways. Here are three ways in which a plant-based diet can change our brain.
Health experts agree that the typical western diet of excess saturated fat, protein, and simple carbohydrates leads to significant health problems, including cognitive decline. To that effect, much of the health literature will promote actions in making dietary changes to combat current health diseases. Many studies indicate diets high in good fats, antioxidants, polyphenols, flavonoids, fiber, and nutrient-dense foods protect the body and brain. Three diets (Mediterranean diet, Dash diet, and the Mediterranean-Dash hybrid diet) are reported as having significant results in protecting against cognitive decline and dementia-related disease. Research on plant-only diets is still limited. However, we can observe and rely on solid cognitive and behavioral research in other ways to support why plant-based eating changes in our brain.
Additionally, observational data should be considered. Scott Kaiser, a physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, told Bustle, “lifelong vegetarians and vegans may have a lower risk of developing dementia.” The 2010 study suggests people who eat only vegetables and fruits may have higher brain activity that supports self-control, empathy, and interoception (internal body sensory awareness) compared to people with animal-based products in their daily meals.
There is no doubt a healthy lifestyle rich in plant foods can support our brain in ways that help slow cognitive decline. Physically, we know eating more plants aids in reducing adverse dietary hormone effects, increases anti-inflammatory agents, and elevates nutritional factors that fend off lifestyle diseases. Aside from the nutritional benefits to your brain health, the act of learning to follow a plant-based diet has its brain rewards. Plenty of research indicates that learning, creativity, and practicing spirituality can change our brain chemistry well into old age.
1. Learning and experiencing new things changes the brain.
Embarking on a plant-based journey is a learning experience. There are setbacks and challenges and figuring out how to navigate these new frontiers is part of the process and success. But real brain change only takes place when we do it. In our western culture, most Americans aren’t born into plant-based eating. Whether you identify with plant-based eating or veganism, many of us have a story to tell about how we started. The ah-ha moment when our meat-eating days disappeared for good, and our vision for a healthier, happier person becomes a reality. But an idea alone means nothing until learned and practiced. This is the moment of real transformation in brain structure.
Behavioral principles state that our brain responds to learning new behavior by interacting. Plant-based eating and cooking require you to learn and then do. It is an essential part of the learning process, and our brain cannot change unless we interact, do, and experience.
In most cases, changing years of meat-centric habits in favor of eating only plants isn’t easy. It might mean changing your whole identity, not just of yourself, but to others. Or it might mean finally validating what you’ve believed all along. But mostly, choosing to eat only plants goes against the status quo of our culture. We need to call on the strength of innate values to be successful. Abilities such as independent thought, curiosity, willingness to learn, and grow.
In many cases, we have to re-invent ourselves and dispense with a lifetime identity. This shows a willingness to learn new ways in which to communicate our convictions, ideas, and beliefs and still maintain a connection to our world. In many ways, we have to grow, learn, navigate, and negotiate conflicts and barriers that never previously crossed our minds. It means we have to find solutions to problems that are interpersonal, social, and cultural. Sometimes it takes demonstrating determination, resolve, and commitment that are essential values of life. Practicing commitment to one thing hopefully forges new paths in our neural circuits to form other ways of finding and committing to other worthy endeavors and elevating our integrity to new levels.
2. Creativity changes the brain.
Learning to prepare, cook, and serve great vegan meals sometimes takes time and effort. Due to the pandemic, more people are willing to put in the time to learn and opt for home-made meals. Vegan prep, planning, and cooking can be creative, rewarding, and delicious.
Sure, whipping up some canned beans with a tortilla may not be the best use of our creative brain. But lots of plant-based meals require what neurologists describe as divergent thinking. Envisioning, building, and creating a meal out of plants forces us to exercise our pre-frontal lobe of pre-planning and cognitive thinking. Sure, we can just YouTube any vegan recipe out there but, you still have to source and gather the ingredients (which in some areas of the U.S. is still quite challenging) and put them together in a specific way that creates a delicious meal. This is especially challenging when trying to emulate traditional meat dishes. There is incredible diversity when working with plants. One plant-based meal can be designed in several different ways, which is the very essence of divergent, creative thinking.
So, it’s all about you in the kitchen. It’s no small task to whip up a delicious, healthy meal concocted entirely out of plants, especially when our brain has only been exposed to one way of thinking. Finding nuts for your meatloaf, mushrooms for steak, or using cashews to make a fabulous cheesecake, our brain has to substitute plant ingredients we would never have thought possible in a meat-centric world.
3. Connecting spirituality changes the brain.
Creativity and spirituality are closely connected. When we create a new dish entirely out of plants, we are present in what we are creating. The brain responds to art, beauty, and connection, much like meditation, by increasing gamma brain waves that facilitate awareness and bliss.
Many brain studies have found that meditation changes our brain. Meditation alters our pre-frontal cortex, which includes increasing grey matter and rational decision making, processing information, giving intelligence a boost. The hippocampus used for learning and memory thickens with new pathways. It is not surprising when we practice meditation regularly, we show improved emotional control.
You don’t have to sit and meditate, go to church, or ascribe to religion to feel spiritual. Spirituality is about a connection to something greater than you. When we practice intention by sitting down to a vegan meal made out of delicious plants, devoid of dead animals, the connection to life is real. Spirituality has many forms, and one of the best opportunities to practice that connection is at every meal because it acknowledges all forms of life.
There is still much to learn about brain and behavior, and how being vegan changes our mind. But learning new ways of thinking is a part of our progressive history. This time around, it is a crucial way for humans to adapt and help our planet. Ditch the standard American diet and find new plant-based foods that improve our health, brain, creativity, and spirit while saving our planet and changing the world for the better.
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