Eating For Brain Health Is Easier Than You Think
The brain is the most complex part of the human body. Yet, despite its importance as the seat of our intelligence, the controller of body movement, and the interpreter of our senses (among many other roles), we often don’t give a thought to how we take care of our brains.
How do we eat for brain health?
Over our lifetimes, our eating patterns and the specific foods we consume can impact the health of our brain. Researchers are still trying to unravel how the brain works and what it needs to perform at its highest level, but we do know that, like our bodies, our brains need energy and nutrients to function best.
Everything our brains do for us takes energy—a surprisingly large amount of it. It’s estimated that our brains account for about 20% of the calories that our bodies use in a day.1 That’s a lot of energy for a 3-pound organ! The brain gets its energy in the form of glucose, a simple sugar that comes from the breakdown of the carbohydrates we consume.
The brain also needs a steady diet of nourishing food to supply it with a wide range of nutrients. The foods that make up a healthy diet for the brain collectively provide vitamins, minerals, macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), beneficial phyto-nutrients (natural plant compounds) and other substances that promote health—including some that may not have been discovered yet!
Along with healthy foods, the eating pattern that one follows may also impact brain health, according to research.
The growing number of studies investigating the effect of eating patterns on adult cognitive health tend to focus on the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). Positive effects on cognitive outcomes in older adults have been found for all three of these diet patterns, as well as for a general anti-inflammatory diet. What do these diets have in common? In general, they are mostly plant-based, rich in poly- and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, and low in processed foods.2
Which foods are good for the brain?
Of course, no single food or nutrient will make or break the health of your brain. It takes an array of nutrients from a variety of foods. Lucky for us, eating a brain-healthy diet is not only achievable, it can be tasty, too!
In general, the foods that are good for the heart are the same ones that are good for the brain. The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations offer good, general advice on following a heart-healthy (and ultimately brain-healthy) eating style.3
According to a recent systematic review of 56 studies that examined eating patterns in the three most commonly studied cognition-related diets (Mediterranean diet, DASH diet and MIND diet), some foods, including fish, olive oil and plant-based food, are associated with better cognitive outcomes among older people.4
Here’s a quick round-up of some “brainy” foods to keep stocked at home:
Salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines (rich in omega-3 fats)
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fats. Here ‘essential’ means that we must get these fats from our diets because our bodies cannot make them.5 Fish is the main source for omega-3 fats in our diets, although we can make small amounts from another type of omega-3 fat found in nuts, seeds and some cooking oils. Therefore, eating two servings per week of fish that are good sources of omega-3 fats is recommended for heart health.6 These two fats are crucial for the healthy development and physical maintenance of the brain. They also help with normal brain function and brain cell (i.e. neuron) communication, and appear to protect the brain as well.7
Wild blueberries, deep green vegetables, coffee and tea (rich in flavonoid antioxidant)
Our bodies have various ways to help offset the negative effects of oxidative stress.8 Oxidative stress is known to be detrimental to normal brain function, and is linked to several neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.9 Recently there has been great interest in how specific food components can act as antioxidants in the body to provide additional protection against oxidative stress.
For example, flavonoids, a class of natural food antioxidants, have been investigated for decades because of their apparent protective effects against age-related chronic conditions including cognitive decline. Thankfully, there are a wide range of plant-based foods that deliver a healthy dose of flavonoids (and other antioxidants like vitamin C). Topping the list are wild blueberries, one of the world’s tastiest antioxidant-rich foods. These tiny “brain berries” are packed with pigments called anthocyanins, which are a type of flavonoid. Look for wild blueberries year-round in the freezer section of your grocery store. You can also find flavonoids in foods like kale, broccoli, onions, dark chocolate, grapes, red wine, coffee and tea.
Tree nuts such as pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts and pecans (rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats)
The fats found in tree nuts are predominantly healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, both of which have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease.10 And as you now know, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. In addition, a number of scientific studies have demonstrated the actions of nuts against inflammation, oxidative damage, as well as dementia or memory loss.11 Tree nuts are also rich sources of antioxidants such as vitamin E, and deliver fiber, important vitamins and minerals, and plant-based protein.
The Bottom Line for Brain Health
Developing healthy eating habits is a lifelong journey, and it’s never too late (or too early) to start! The good news is that there is a wide range of food that can support a healthy brain and even help reduce the risk of age-related neurodegenerative diseases. So next time you head to the grocery store, fill your cart with as many brain foods as you can. Eating a brain-boosting diet will provide benefits for the entire body, and there’s no better time than the present to remember your brain!
- Raichle, M.E., Debra A. Gusnard, D.A. (2002) Appraising the brain’s energy budget Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99 (16) 10237-10239; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.172399499
- Chen X., Maguire B., Brodaty H., O’Leary F. Dietary patterns and cognitive health in older adults: A systematic review. (2019) Journal of Alzheimers Disease. 2019;67(2):583-619. doi: 10.3233/JAD-180468.
- American Heart Association (2017). “The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/aha-diet-and-lifestyle-recommendations
- van den Brink A.C., Brouwer-Brolsma E.M., Berendsen A.A.M., van de Rest O. (2019) The Mediterranean, dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH), and Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay (MIND) diets are associated with less cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease-A review. Advances in Nutrition. 2019;10(6):1040-1065. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz054
- National Institutes of Health (2021) Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/
- American Heart Association (2017). Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/fish-and-omega-3-fatty-acids
- Dyall S.C. (2015) Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA. Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience. 2015;7:52. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2015.00052
- Lee K.H., Cha M., Lee B.H. (2020) Neuroprotective effect of antioxidants in the brain. International Journal of Molecular Science. 2020; 21(19):7152. doi:10.3390/ijms21197152
- Pizzino G, Irrera N, Cucinotta M, Pallio, G. Mannino, F., Arcorcai, V., Squadrito, F., Altavilla, D. Bitto, A.(2017) Oxidative Stress: Harms and Benefits for Human Health. Oxidative Medicine and Cell Longevity. doi:10.1155/2017/8416763
- Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2017. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510
- Arslan J., Gilani A.U., Jamshed H., Khan S.F., Kamal M.A. (2020) Edible Nuts for Memory. Current Pharmaceutical Design. 2020;26(37):4712-4720. doi: 10.2174/1381612826666200806095649. PMID: 32767923.
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