Your Health Questions Answered

Is There Such a Thing as 'Brain Food'?

According to studies and this Sarasota nutritionist, the answer is yes.

By Allison Forsyth August 10, 2022

Brain Food

Image: Kari Perrin

 Certain foods are great for our brains.

Salmon, for example, provides use vital proteins to improve cognition and mood. Walnuts and avocados contain Omega-3 fatty acids to support concentration and blood flow to the brain.

But can these "brain foods" actually prevent cognitive decline and cognitive illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer's Disease?

While there's not one way to eat that guarantees protection from dementia, studies show that some foods really are "brain foods," in that they stimulate cell growth, sharpen the brain's memory centers thereby reducing cognitive decline.

Read on for Sarasota nutritionist Bonni London's tips for eating well for brain health.

Eat a Mediterranean or MIND diet

According to The New York Times, two diets—the Mediterranean diet and MIND diet, which was created for dementia sufferers—have been shown to offer protection against cognitive decline.

A study in 2017 analyzed the diets of 5,900 U.S. adults and found those who stuck most closely to the Mediterranean and MIND diet had a 30 percent to 35 percent lower risk of cognitive impairment than those who didn't.

A Mediterranean diet consists of seafood and fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and olive oil with lesser amounts of poultry, eggs and dairy. The MIND diet consists of at least three servings of whole grains, fruits and vegetables daily; one to two servings of beans, poultry and fish weekly; and daily snacks of nuts and berries.

Both emphasize limiting red meat, dairy, fried foods and processed sugar.

Follow heart-healthy diets, too

"What's good for the heart is good for the brain," says Dr. Ronald Peterson, neurologist and director of May Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.

This means sticking with diets that include heart-healthy ingredients like Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and lower amounts of cholesterol, salt and saturated fats.

A study from Harvard Health found that nutrients such a vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta-carotene are great for the heart and the brain, too, since they keep blood vessels healthy.

Eat leafy greens.

:eafy greens are linked with slower age-related cognitive decline. A clinical trial from Israel found that those who ate mankai—a nutrient-packed green plant—green tea and walnuts had the slowest rate of age-related brain atrophy.

Mix greens into smoothies, pasta dishes, in breakfast scrambles and as a topping to soups and other entrees. Find salad recipes that you enjoy and can make on a weekly basis. Enlist the help of a nutritionist—or check out our list of the best salads in Sarasota-Manatee.

Eat the rainbow

Colorful fruits and vegetables contain a natural substance called flavinoids. Those who consume flavinoids from fruits, vegetables and even dark chocolate and red wine (in moderation) were less likely to report signs of cognitive aging than those who consumed fewer flavinoids.

Blueberries and strawberries, in particular, are great antioxidant-rich brain foods. A study found that older women who ate servings of each per day had delayed rates of cognitive decline up to 2.5 years.

"Fruit is a great source of phytonutrients, but can also contain natural sugar fructose, so eat certain fruits in moderation," writes London. "There are 61 different names of sugar in processed foods, so look for hidden sources of sugar in commonplace items like bread, cereal and salad dressings."

Try fatty fish

Omega-3 is found in abundance in salmon, makerel, trout and other cold water fish. Salmon, in particular, has an ingredient called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, that is the most prevalent brain fat, according to Lisa Mosconi, director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Program at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Because our bodies cannot make large amounts of DHA on their own, we have to get it from our diet. Eating fish is the best way to do that, especially since it's been found that fatty acid supplements have little effect on cognitive decline.

"Sixty-five percent of your brain is made of up fat," explains London. "Whatever form of fat you consume gets converted directly into the cell membrane, the gatekeeper of what goes into and out of cells and plays an important role in communicating to surrounding cells."

Balance Omega-6 fatty acids with Omega-3s

"When it comes to fat, it's all about the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3," writes London. "This ratio has drastically changed since the turn of the century due to the ubiquitous use of soy and corn, which supply large amounts of Omega-6. So it isn't enough to increase Omega-3 intake; you need to decrease Omega-6 intake, as well."

London suggests avoiding hydrogenated oils or trans-fats like soybean oil, corn oil, safflower and cottonseed oils, which can lead to inflammation in the brain. Instead, use olive, hemp and coconut oil.

A 2022 study by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found adults with higher intake of olive oil were associated with a 29 percent lower risk of dying from neurodegenerative disease when compared with those who never or rarely consumed olive oil.

Snack on nuts, seeds and legumes

Walnuts are touted as a great brain, and heart, healthy snack. Other great options are lentils, soybeans, almonds and pistachios. An article by the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging in 2014 reported that women who consumed at least five servings of nuts per week had better cognitive scores than those who didn't eat nuts.

Balance your gut microbiome

According to London, balancing the bacteria that line the walls of your stomach and intestine (a.k.a. your microbiome) can also benefit the brain. Bacteria make up 90 percent of cells in the body, with bacteria in the gut specifically responsible for producing 95 percent of the serotonin and 50 percent of the dopamine neurotransmitters in your body.

A happy gut can equal a happy brain. London suggests trying fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, kombucha, apple cider vinegar and miso soup. She also suggests food with prebiotics such as raw onion, garlic, asparagus and bananas.

"Avoid foods that have preservatives meant to destroy bacteria, yeast and mold, extending shelf life," she says. "The preservatives can also destroy helpful bacteria in our gut."

Remember that diet cannot cure or reverse cognitive decline

There is no cure for dementia or medication to prevent it, meaning that a single diet can't guarantee protection from it, either. But if you're eating, exercising and reducing stress to reverse other health conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, you may also be lowering your chances of cognitive decline in the process.

"Taking care of your brain is not an impossible task," says London. "Focus on the things you consume most of the time; strive to fill up your plate with nutrients."

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