Cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are some of the most concerning health conditions associated with aging. Healthy brain function is vital for maintaining quality of life as we age, but sometimes it seems like memory problems and other forms of cognitive decline are unavoidable.
Fortunately, there are a few dietary strategies vegans can use to support brain health and reduce their risk for neurodegenerative diseases. A plant-based diet rich in whole foods is a great start, but certain foods are extra helpful for preserving brain function. Let’s discuss these vegan brain foods below!
The 16 best vegan brain foods for cognitive function
Vegan diets high in fiber-rich plant foods that also contain high amounts of antioxidants, omega-3 fats, and polyphenols can support brain health as we age.
Based on the available scientific research, the following foods are the best sources of one or more of these helpful nutrients and compounds.
Apart from algae-based supplements, walnuts are the best plant-based source of omega-3 fats. These fats are known for their anti-inflammatory benefits and have been shown to reduce inflammation in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease1.
Add chopped walnuts to oatmeal, smoothie bowls, muffins, banana or pumpkin bread, and cookies for a boost of healthy fats. You can also use finely chopped walnuts in a vegan Bolognese sauce with lentils and mushrooms over pasta. They’re also great on their own or with dried fruit as a snack.
2. Flax seeds
Flax seeds are the next-best source of omega-3 fats after walnuts. These need to be ground in order for the body to best absorb their healthy fats. You can buy them already ground or grind your own in a coffee grinder or spice grinder.
Flax seeds are a perfect addition to fruit smoothies and overnight oats. They can also be used in place of eggs in some baked goods when mixed with hot water.
Blackberries are incredibly high in antioxidants, plant-based compounds that reduce oxidative stress (and often inflammation) within the body and brain caused by damaging free radicals. Oxidative damage and inflammation within the brain are two ways that cognitive decline develops. Because of this, it’s important to consistently eat antioxidant-rich foods.
You can tell that blackberries are rich in antioxidants by their gorgeous dark color, showing that they’re rich in anthocyanins. Have blackberries as a side at breakfast or lunch, add them to non-dairy yogurt parfaits, and bake fruit-based desserts like blackberry cobbler more often than non-fruit desserts like cookies or cake.
Another colorful berry, blueberries are well known for their high antioxidant content. Blueberries and other whole plant-based foods are also excellent sources of dietary fiber, of which many types support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut and help limit the growth of harmful, pro-inflammatory bacteria.
This overall balance of healthy and harmful bacteria is known as the gut microbiome. There’s an interesting connection between the gut and the brain called the Microbiome-Gut-Brain-Axis. It’s thought that having too many harmful gut bacteria can promote the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by causing inflammation.
Poor gut health is also risky for mental health disorders like depression, as healthy gut bacteria are needed for the production of the “happiness” neurotransmitter serotonin.
Regularly eating berries can help reduce inflammation. Try adding blueberries to oatmeal and non-dairy parfaits, add to muffins and pancakes, and combine with your favorite fruits in a fruit salad as a side to any meal.
5. Beans & legumes
Speaking of dietary fiber, beans are one of the best sources with an amazing 13 grams in one cup of cooked chickpeas. They’re a great food to include in most meals if you want to improve your overall gut health and, in turn, your brain health.
Interestingly, legumes may also support cognitive function2 by helping regulate blood sugar. Legumes are high in carbohydrates, but their dietary fiber content prevents these carbs from being absorbed too quickly into the bloodstream.
Try the following ideas for including more beans in your diet:
- Add chickpeas to Buddha bowls and curries
- Make black bean tacos, burritos, and soup
- Make lentil stews, dal, and Bolognese sauce
- Add edamame to veggie stir-fries and fried rice
- Use pinto beans for frijoles charros and burritos
- Use kidney beans in vegan red beans & rice
- Add white beans to pasta dishes and soups
Half an avocado contains 2 milligrams of vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin that doubles as an antioxidant. Vitamin E can help reduce oxidative stress in the body, help cells function more efficiently, and may help improve cognitive performance2. It’s thought to be one nutrient that helps explain the reduced risk of cognitive decline seen with the plant-forward Mediterranean diet.
Add avocados to bean-and-grain bowls, smoothies, sandwiches, tofu scrambles, and toast for a boost of healthy fats and antioxidants. Or make them into guacamole and pair them with your favorite Mexican dishes!
7. Chia seeds
We’re back to omega-3s! Chia seeds are another great source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids while also providing 200 milligrams of calcium per serving, a particularly important nutrient for vegans to get enough of.
Chia seeds are best prepared as lightly sweetened chia pudding (preferably topped with fruit), sprinkled on overnight oats, or added to smoothies. Just be sure to check your smile in a mirror afterwards as they can easily get stuck in your teeth!
8. Coffee & espresso
This one may be surprising, as we’re constantly being encouraged to give up caffeine by wellness influencers. However, coffee and espresso are two of the highest antioxidant beverages around, which likely explains their association with a reduced risk of cognitive deficits.
Caffeine may also play a protective role. Don’t go overboard, though, as brain power benefits were seen with less than 3 cups of coffee a day3. This is about the same amount of caffeine as the FDA-recommended daily limit of 400 milligrams. Overall, it seems that caffeine is beneficial when limited to recommended amounts.
According to NHANES data4, decaffeinated coffee has no association with cognitive performance – so feel free to drink regular coffee as long as you aren’t overly sensitive to caffeine or have a medical condition that requires to you avoid it.
The high amounts of sugar in many coffee drinks may limit the ability of coffee to slow cognitive decline, however, so try to stick with unsweetened or lightly sweetened coffee.
Because nuts eaten with the pellicle (the thin skin on the surface of nuts) intact have much higher levels of antioxidants, pecans are a particularly good nut for reducing oxidative damage.
The same is true for walnuts. Other nuts like peanuts or slivered almonds often have the pellicle removed, so keep this in mind when choosing nuts based on their potential brain health benefits.
The roasty, nutty flavor of pecans lends them well to autumn baked goods or dishes with seasonal ingredients like pumpkin, butternut squash, or acorn squash. They also make an excellent addition to baked apple oatmeal or homemade trail mixes.
10. Dried amla powder
If you follow Nutritionfacts.com, you’ve likely heard of amla, also known as Indian gooseberry. Dried amla contains the most antioxidants of any fruit or vegetable5, making it a powerful addition to an anti-inflammatory diet.
Amla is incredibly sour, making it challenging to incorporate into most dishes. The most popular ways of eating dried amla are to add a small amount to smoothies or to fill your own supplement capsules with the powder.
Other herbs and spices also contain powerful antioxidants, so look for ways to add more of these to your meals. Turmeric, ginger, paprika, cloves, cinnamon, chili powder, thyme, saffron, and rosemary are all great examples.
11. Curly kale
If you don’t like kale, don’t give up on it just yet! Kale’s dark green color means it contains many beneficial antioxidants that help promote brain health. It’s also high in fiber and is a great source of vitamin K, which is important for proper blood clotting and building healthy bones.
Don’t like raw kale? Try a massaged kale salad with olive oil, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Left in the fridge for 30 minutes, these ingredients soften the kale just enough without making it wilt. Kale is also great sauteed with a little olive oil, garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Other dark leafy greens like collard greens, spinach, and arugula are wonderful alternatives.
It’s easy to tell from looking at fresh pomegranate arils and pomegranate juice that this fruit is packed with antioxidants! Pomegranates are deep red in color and make a great topping for non-dairy yogurt, oatmeal, and fruit salads.
If you struggle with cutting them open, find a helpful video tutorial or purchase pomegranate arils that have already been prepared.
13. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are particularly high in flavonols, plant-based compounds that are anti-inflammatory and act as antioxidants. The darker the chocolate, the higher the flavonol content – meaning vegan “milk” chocolates aren’t as beneficial.
Interestingly, dark chocolate may be most protective for people at risk of or who have early-stage cognitive decline6 compared to healthy people.
While the amount of chocolate needed to see benefits is still unknown, it’s likely best to limit dark chocolate consumption to one serving per day in light of its high saturated fat content.
Often only eaten as cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, cranberries are worthy of so much more. Like pomegranates, their deep red color means they’re packed with antioxidants.
Try adding cranberry sauce to almond butter oatmeal or non-dairy yogurt and mix fresh or frozen cranberries into muffins, quick breads, and pancakes for an antioxidant boost. Lightly sweetened dried cranberries are a great option if you find fresh cranberries too bitter.
15. Green tea & matcha
Green tea contains catechins, a specific type of polyphenol and antioxidant shown to improve memory in middle-aged and older adults. Green tea consumption of about two cups per day also reduces the odds of developing dementia and cognitive decline.
ECGC, a specific type of catechin, has been shown in rats to limit the formation of amyloid-β plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. We aren’t sure whether this also happens in humans, but these findings are promising.
As with coffee, try not to sweeten your green tea or matcha lattes too much if you drink them frequently.
16. Red wine
A controversial pick, for sure, but evidence shows that light consumption of red wine is associated with a decreased risk of dementia and cognitive decline7. Benefits have been seen with less than 11 grams of alcohol a day, according to a 2018 meta-analysis3. A standard glass of wine contains 14 grams.
Keep in mind that all alcohol, even red wine, increases the risk of cancer. To balance this, it’s best to limit your alcohol intake to one glass of wine (preferably a scant glass) per day for women or two glasses a day for men to reap the brain health benefits while minimizing your risk for cancer.
If you don’t drink already, you shouldn’t start now – focus instead on eating more of the other foods on this list.
I tried to focus on foods that are easily accessible and commonly eaten in the United States (where I’m based), but I did come across other foods with very impressive levels of antioxidants. These include:
- Aronia berries
- African baobab leaves
- Dried dog rose (rosehip)
If you have access to these foods, give them a shot!
Foods rich in dietary fiber, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, and omega-3 fats have important benefits for cognitive function as we age. A vegan diet is a great start as plant-based foods tend to be much higher in these nutrients and compounds than animal-based foods.
It can be tempting to label these vegan brain foods as superfoods and believe that including one or two once in a while is enough, but eating a consistently nutrient-dense diet full of whole plant foods is going to be much more effective than any individual food.
Our daily eating habits add up over a lifetime, so begin to think about how you can incorporate the foods on this list into a nutritious, balanced vegan diet to best support brain health.
Vegan brain foods – FAQs
What are the best plant foods for the brain?
The best plant foods for the brain are high in dietary fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and omega-3 fats. This includes fruits and vegetables with deep colors like berries and dark leafy greens, various nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, avocados, dark chocolate, coffee, green tea, and herbs/spices.
Is a vegan diet good for the brain?
A vegan diet can be good for the brain as long as it is well-balanced and nutrient-dense. It should include plenty of fruits and vegetables with deep colors like berries and dark leafy greens, various nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, avocados, and herbs/spices. These vegan foods support optimal brain health thanks to the dietary fiber, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats found in these foods.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- McGrattan AM, McGuinness B, McKinley MC, et al. Diet and Inflammation in Cognitive Ageing and Alzheimer’s Disease. Curr Nutr Rep. 2019;8(2):53-65. doi:10.1007/s13668-019-0271-4
- Petersson SD, Philippou E. Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(5):889-904. Published 2016 Sep 15. doi:10.3945/an.116.012138
- Ran LS, Liu WH, Fang YY, et al. Alcohol, coffee and tea intake and the risk of cognitive deficits: a dose-response meta-analysis. Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci. 2021;30:e13. Published 2021 Feb 11. doi:10.1017/S2045796020001183
- Dong X, Li S, Sun J, Li Y, Zhang D. Association of Coffee, Decaffeinated Coffee and Caffeine Intake from Coffee with Cognitive Performance in Older Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2011-2014. Nutrients. 2020;12(3):840. Published 2020 Mar 20. doi:10.3390/nu12030840
- Carlsen MH, Halvorsen BL, Holte K, et al. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutr J. 2010;9:3. Published 2010 Jan 22. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-3
- Zeli C, Lombardo M, Storz MA, Ottaviani M, Rizzo G. Chocolate and Cocoa-Derived Biomolecules for Brain Cognition during Ageing. Antioxidants (Basel). 2022;11(7):1353. Published 2022 Jul 12. doi:10.3390/antiox11071353
- Reale M, Costantini E, Jagarlapoodi S, Khan H, Belwal T, Cichelli A. Relationship of Wine Consumption with Alzheimer’s Disease. Nutrients. 2020;12(1):206. Published 2020 Jan 13. doi:10.3390/nu12010206