At some point in your life, you’ve likely had a moment where you’ve walked into a room and asked yourself, “now, what was I going to do here?” If you’re like me, this may happen several times each week (or more!)
Forgetfulness and distraction are a normal part of human life. However, as we age, we become at risk of developing more serious memory disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease. While development is multifactorial (genetics being one factor we can’t change), studies suggest what we eat plays a large role in our ability to maintain a healthy brain.
Food for Thought
The human brain is a nutritional powerhouse. It requires adequate amounts of food fuel everyday just to run properly. Out of all the energy our body uses to function, our brain takes up about twenty percent!
More than just food energy, our brain also requires important nutrients to help it function and perform optimally. For example, folate (in dark leafy greens and citrus fruits) and choline (found in wheat germ and egg yolks) play vital roles in brain development in early life. And as we age, food properties that reduce inflammation and improve cell and artery health are important. This is because the brain requires good blood flow for optimal functioning, and it does quite poorly under inflammatory conditions.
Nutrition Roadmaps for Better Brain Health
The Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets are two eating patterns that are well known for reducing cardiovascular disease risk and improving quality of life in many individuals. New research indicates that people will also reap cognitive rewards when adhering to these types of eating patterns. Executive functioning, language, and memory have all appeared to improve when participants follow a Mediterranean-style diet. One study showed that participants who strictly adhered to a combination of both the Mediterranean and the DASH diet were able to reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by almost fifty percent!
What these two eating patterns have in common is that they feature mostly whole, nutrient-dense, plant-predominant foods. The combination of these foods may both help improve a person’s blood flow and reduce overall inflammation, and protect against brain cell breakdown. Want to start eating more mindfully? Here is a list of some of the most beneficial foods to include to best fuel your brain:
Top Brain-Boosting Foods to Include in Your Diet
1) Green leafy vegetables, like spinach, broccoli, kale or collard greens, to name a few. These are excellent sources of folate, flavonoids and lutein, which are important nutrients that can help improve blood flow to the brain. They can also aid in the production of DNA and RNA, which are part of the body’s genetic material. A recent study suggested that adding just one to two servings of leafy greens per day could slow cognitive decline significantly, like the equivalent of being 11 years younger!
2) Berries, especially blueberries and strawberries. These are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, which can build up and protect brain tissue. Berries are also rich in a specific polyphenol flavonoid compound called anthocyanin, which is especially helpful in reducing inflammation. Including 1-2 servings of fresh or frozen berries each day overtime could help improve cognitive functioning.
3) Beans. They may seem boring to some, but beans are incredibly versatile and nutrient-dense. Also known as pulses, these are an excellent source of brain-boosting folate. They are also rich in fiber, which could help improve blood flow, and they provide a good source of plant-based protein. Try adding in 1-2 cups of black, pinto, garbanzo, or any other variety of bean each week for heart and brain health.
4) Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, whitefish or sardines. These are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can aid in preserving the structure of brain cell membrane, and also reduce inflammatory processes linked with cognitive decline. If you like fish, include two servings of these omega-3 containing fish each week. But be sure they are cooked in a way that does not involve deep frying because that will significantly reduce the health benefits.
5) Walnuts. Not a fan of fish? Walnuts contain the plant-based version of omega-3: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This is the less potent type of the beneficial fatty acid, but it may still have beneficial effects on the brain. And walnuts are rich in vitamin E, which may help improve blood flow and reduce inflammation. If you like walnuts, you could include 1/4 cup in your diet 4-5 days per week.
6) Black or green tea. Drinking these types of brewed tea can provide you with catechins, which is a naturally occurring antioxidant. Several studies suggest that consuming these regularly may help improve language and verbal memory, and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. If you enjoy tea, try drinking 1-2 cups each day – but try to avoid drinking prior to bedtime so your sleep quality does not suffer.
Other Nutrition Considerations for Brain Health
Just as the foods above may be able to improve cognitive health, there are some foods that, if consumed regularly, can potentially reduce brain function. Refined and processed foods are generally nutrient-poor and can contribute to higher rates of inflammation, so these should be limited. Added sugars and saturated fats fall into that same camp, so try to limit those, as well.
And, while the brain-boosting foods listed above are fantastic, remember that one single food will not make a grand difference in your health. It is more important to consistently fill your diet with nutrient-dense foods that support good health. So give these foods a try, if they are enjoyable and sustainable for you, and see if you notice a difference. Here’s to your good health and a happy brain!
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Langa KM, Larson EB, Crimmins EM, et al. Comparison of the prevalence of dementia in the United States in 2000 and 2012. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(1):51-58.
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