Are Vegetarians Actually Smarter? A Look at the Facts

A vegetarian diet can improve cognitive function.

Are vegetarians smarter than their meat-eating peers? Some scientific studies seem to indicate this is the case. But there are a lot of factors to consider before assuming that living meat-free guarantees a membership in MENSA.

How Are Vegetarians Smarter?

A 2006 study from the University of Southampton in Britain, which followed more than 8,000 people for 20 years, found that vegetarians tend to have IQs about five points higher than those of meat-eaters. The IQs were measured when the subjects were children and again as adults. Of the adults who had become vegetarians - about four and a half percent - their IQ measured around 105, compared to 100 for those who ate meat. Furthermore, they were more likely to have completed college and secured a well-paying job. Several explanations for these results are possible, many of which indicate that there is more involved than dietary choices. It should be noted, by the way, that the IQs of vegans averaged only around 95.

The Brain and Diet

Are vegetarians smarter when it comes to food choices? They are certainly healthier overall. With lower blood pressure and cholesterol, they are less likely to suffer heart attacks, diabetes or obesity. By focusing on a diet rich in fresh fruit, vegetables, plant proteins and whole grains, they ingest the strongest nutrients for building a healthy body and mind. Additionally, it is possible that the effort needed by the body to digest animal products can leech nutrients from your brain, although this requires further study.

What is known is that the bulk of foods proven to have a positive effect on brain power are vegetarian: avocados, pomegranates, blueberries, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, tomatoes and garlic are all excellent brain foods. The best non-vegetarian brain foods are fish like salmon and tuna, as well as eggs. Famous vegetarian and smart guy George Bernard Shaw was quick to note the cognitive superiority of the non-meat diet when he said, "A mind of the caliber of mine cannot derive its nutrient from cows."

Healthy Body = Healthy Mind

On balance, vegetarians are more likely to get a lot of regular exercise. Many vegetarians also practice yoga, which can be beneficial to both mind and body because it promotes deep breathing and relaxation as well as improving strength and flexibility. Vegetarians also argue that one of the advantages of diet is that it gives them more energy, so that they are overall more physically efficient and even sleep better. All this results not so much in increased mental acumen, but rather more effective use of your brain.

Other Considerations

But are vegetarians smarter because of their diet, or do they choose the diet because they are smart? Before meat-eaters get upset, consider that most of the people who choose to become vegetarians are of a middle class or higher background and college educated. If they became vegetarians as adults, they were in an environment whereby they could learn about the benefits of the diet and of course have access to better produce for purchase. None of this speaks to innate intelligence per se, but rather education and opportunity.

Food and Education

What is undisputed is that a better diet improves cognitive ability. This is why food experts like Alice Waters have been advocating for more fresh, organic foods as part of the national school lunch program. Children perform better in school when they are well nourished. A diet richer in plant products, rather than one that features processed foods and proven brain drainers like high fructose corn syrup and other sugars, will give children more mental energy. While improvements would be more expensive than the current school lunch program, it would yield benefits with a healthier, better-educated population. For the body and for the brain, as well as the planet, a diet that emphasizes plant foods is the key to better health.

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Are Vegetarians Actually Smarter? A Look at the Facts