by Tori Schmitt, MS, RDN, LD
Your brain: it helps command everything you do. It powers digestion, circulation, breathing and thinking. It controls your body movements and emotions. Parts of your brain and nervous system help release chemical messengers that give you signals that it is time to eat, that you are thirsty, that you are full or that your body should start digesting the food it has just eaten.
It is understood that you should provide your brain with the nutrients it needs to function optimally. Though carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for the brain, we know that the brain needs several other nutrients to support its health. So, what are those nutrients and foods that you should have, and others you want to steer clear from? This Brain Health Nutrition Guide gives you six helpful tips for keeping your brain in gear.
Go Nuts for Healthy Food
Eat your nuts and olives – and your vegetables, too! Why? An eating pattern that focuses on antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods may provide protection from cognitive decline. Recent research demonstrates that nuts and olive oil, when paired with a Mediterranean-style diet (rich in green leafy vegetables, fish, whole grains, legumes, and vegetables) may help improve cognitive function.1 Incorporate nuts like walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, peanuts, almonds, and their nut butters into your eating plan more often.
Berries for Better Brain Health
Berries, specifically strawberries and blueberries, may support brain health while reducing the speed of cognitive decline in older adults.2-3 Berries contain flavonoids, specifically anthocyanidins, which appear to confer the brain-health benefits – so much benefit that women who eat more berries appear to delay cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years! Pop your berries in a smoothie, add them overtop a salad, or serve them fresh with a handful of nuts. And, consider choosing a balanced variety of other flavonoid-rich foods, too, like apples, oranges, onions, tea and red wine (in moderation, of course).3
Catch of the Day: Omega-3s
About 60 percent of the brain is made up of essential omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, which supports brain health and reaction time in young adults.4-5 Since it’s so important, it makes sense to consume enough DHA through what you eat. Find brain-healthy DHA in lower-mercury fish like anchovies, sardines, salmon, and herring, as well as in algal-based DHA supplements and fortified foods.
Get Privy with Probiotics
Can healthy gut bacteria (i.e. probiotics) also support the health of your brain? Recent research seems to point to “yes,” and the reason lies within the gut-brain axis. You see, your digestive tract is full of neurons (nerve cells) that send signals to and from your brain, so maintaining a healthy digestive system is important for preserving healthy nervous system functions. Though more research is needed, in animal studies, those supplemented with probiotics tended to show less anxious behavior, a decrease in depressive behaviors, and benefits to memory performance.6 What can you do? Choose cultured and fermented foods that offer probiotics, like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, and yogurt, and consider a quality probiotic supplement, if necessary.
Consider What Else You May Be Eating
Do you tote around plastic water bottles, microwave food in plastic containers or use canned foods? Be careful, as some of these items may contain bisphenol A (or BPA), which may have the potential to disrupt normal brain development in the prenatal period and lead to long-lasting learning impairments.7 To stay away from BPA, choose glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers, straws and water bottles, reduce the amount of food you eat that is packaged in BPA-lined cans, and keep plastics out of the microwave, dishwasher, freezer and sun.
Cut Back on Added Sugar and Fructose
From your baked goods to fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, and from your soft drinks to ketchup, added sugar and fructose find its way into not only your treat foods, but your everyday foods, too. Why is this a concern? Along with its potential role in contributing to obesity and insulin resistance, fructose – especially when eaten alongside a diet that is insufficient in omega-3s – may impair cognitive function.8 More is yet to be learned about this association, so for now, be aware of how much added sugar you eat in a day, and strive to get less than 5 percent of your total energy from sugar per day (about 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons), as recommended by the World Health Organization for better overall health.
Need some brain boosting meal ideas? How about plain yogurt with berries and walnuts for breakfast, an avocado with sauerkraut for lunch, or a green salad with salmon, strawberries and pistachios for dinner? Begin to combine these foods with an eating pattern full of vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains and fatty fish as you strive for improved health.
Valls-Pedret C, Sala-Vila A, Serra-Mir M, Corella D, de la Torre R, Martínez-González MÁ, Martínez-Lapiscina EH, Fitó M, Pérez-Heras A, Salas-Salvadó J, Estruch R, Ros E. Mediterranean Diet and Age-Related Cognitive DeclineA Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(7):1094-1103. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.1668
Krikorian, R., Shidler, M.D., Nash, T.A., et al. Blueberry Supplementation Improves Memory in Older Adults. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry. 2010;58(7):3996-4000. doi:10.1021/jf9029332.
Devore EE, Kang JH, Breteler MMB, Grodstein F. Dietary intake of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Annals of neurology. 2012;72(1):135-143. doi:10.1002/ana.23594.
Sinn N, Milte C, Howe PRC. Oiling the Brain: A Review of Randomized Controlled Trials of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Psychopathology across the Lifespan. Nutrients. 2010;2(2):128-170. doi:10.3390/nu2020128.
Stonehouse, W, Conolon, CA, Podd, J, Hill JR, Minihane, AM, Haskell, C, Kennedy, D. DHA supplementation improved both memory and reaction time in healthy young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 May; 97(5): 1134-43. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.053371.
Wang H, Lee I-S, Braun C, Enck P. Effect of Probiotics on Central Nervous System Functions in Animals and Humans: A Systematic Review. Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility. 2016;22(4):589-605. doi:10.5056/jnm16018.
Negri-Cesi P. Bisphenol A Interaction With Brain Development and Functions. Dose-Response. 2015;13(2):1559325815590394. doi:10.1177/1559325815590394.
Lakhan SE, Kirchgessner A. The emerging role of dietary fructose in obesity and cognitive decline. Nutrition Journal. 2013;12:114. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-114.