Plant-Based Food: Good for the Planet and Good for Your Brain

Betsy Teutsch, for the Shuttle

Plant-Based Chili

A double batch fits in a 6-quart pot.


  • 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • (2) 15 oz. cans beans (pinto, black, kidney, or mixed), rinsed
  • 2-3 tsps. minced chipotle chilies in adobo sauce (there will be a lot left)
  • 2 tsps. sugar
  • 2 tbs. vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 tbs. chili powder (Yes! That much)
  • 2 tsps. cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 ½ cups frozen corn
  • Optional: ½ bag vegan ground beef (like Beyond Meat crumbles)
  • 2 tbs. minced fresh cilantro


  1. Pulse tomatoes and their juice in a food processor until slightly chunky, about five pulses.
  2. In a large saucepan, cover and bring to a boil the tomatoes, beans, chipotle chilies, sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Reduce to a simmer and continue to cook until needed in step 4.
  3. Heat oil in a larger pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, chili powder, cumin, and ¼ teaspoon salt and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  4. Stir in tomato-bean mixture, scraping up any browned bits. Bring to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes.
  5. Stir in corn and cilantro (and vegan ground beef if desired), and return to a brief simmer. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Like every child whose aging parent suffered from dementia, I fear the same fate. While never a vegetarian, a typical meal was pasta with red sauce and gobs of cheeses — quick and delicious. 

My recent gravitation to a plant-based diet was inspired by following “Happy Healthy Long Life,” a lively Facebook page. The Healthy Librarian, a/k/a Debby Kastner, is a medical librarian at Cleveland Clinic. She shares vetted medical info as well as wonderful recipes culled from a wide variety of chef-bloggers. If she can do it, I can do it.

Her basic message for brain and heart health: Eat a plant-based diet. You can’t change your genetics, but you can eat differently. Plus, the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet are compelling.

The Healthy Librarian also posts book reviews. Two books she shared, in particular, have sold me on eating more plants and less fish, dairy, sugar and processed foods: “The End of Alzheimers: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline” by Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, and “The Blue Zones” by Dan Beuttner.

The Sherzais are a husband-wife neurology team based at California’s Loma Linda University. Loma Lindans are primarily Seventh Day Adventists who adhere to a plant-based diet, and the couple treats many of them. In their experience, the neurologists have diagnosed few cases of dementia despite these residents living to advanced ages. They also treat patients from nearby San Bernardino, a low-income community with a typically high-fat, highly processed diet. In San Bernardino, cognitive impairment is common.

In addition to their plant-based diets, Seventh Day Adventists are physically active and spiritually and communally engaged. It’s hard to isolate how much impact their dietary habits have on brain health, but the Sherzais whole case is persuasive. 

Buettner produced a National Geographic documentary in which he visited the five zones that he circled in blue where global citizens live the longest — hence, the inspiration for “Blue Zones.” Populations in these places eat plant-based diets with little or no animal protein, live to advanced ages, and are largely free of cognitive impairment. Loma Linda is one of the Blue Zones.

Acquiring new eating and preparation habits is a gradual process. I have upgraded my cooking tools with several new large cutting boards, because preparing plant-based foods always means a lot of chopping. A Ninja Foodi has replaced our old blender for smoothies and cold soups. I use a microplane to grate lemon zest and ginger. Since I now make larger quantities of food, we’ve stocked up on Pyrex freezer containers. Nothing beats grabbing a healthy meal out of the freezer.

We buy a lot more chickpeas, sweet potatoes, canned diced tomatoes, greens, beans and fruits. If you make the switch, expect a surge in cumin and turmeric consumption! 

The accompanying chili recipe, courtesy of Zach Teutsch and Becca Rosen, is now in our rotation; it is originally from Cooks Illustrated. I like it over baked potatoes. Plus, it doesn’t require a lot of chopping and is easily doubled.