Do You Eat These Common But Powerful Brain-Boosting Foods?
What in the world are you supposed to eat on a brain-healthy diet?
I get so irritated when I see lists of must-eat foods that are hard to find or just plain weird. With my jaw clenched, I silently scream: “Who is this list for? Most people don’t want that, can’t find that or think it’s too expensive!” But alas, diet for brain health doesn’t have to be so extreme or complicated.
Totally uncomplicated actually.
Typically, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.
Put these foods on your shopping list for your brain-healthy diet. The best part is that these are all common foods – nothing weird or hard to find. And they’re also delicious.
How to nourish your noggin
Here’s what you need for your brain-healthy diet.
1. Fruits, vegetables & pulses. No surprise here. When am I not pushing fruits, vegetables, beans, and lentils! These gems give you ample potassium, which is critical for healthy blood pressure levels. And blood pressure is another connection between the heart and the brain. High blood pressure damages the lining of your arteries in the brain, and makes them stiff, which slows or blocks blood flow. Most people do not consume adequate potassium.
Potassium is in way more than bananas. Think white potatoes, sweet potatoes, prunes, white beans, lima beans, oranges, tomatoes and tomato products, spinach, apricots, cantaloupe, avocado, broccoli and many, many more.
Some fruits and vegetables deserve special mention.
- Apples and pears: Not exotic and mostly white inside. But these favorite fruits should be part of your brain-healthy diet. One study found that a high consumption of apples, pears and other white fruits and vegetables may protect against stroke. Why? Maybe it’s the fiber. And maybe it’s quercetin and isorhamnetin, 2 types of health-boosting flavonols linked to less Alzheimer’s disease risk. Maybe it’s lots of different things.
- Berries: These tiny nutrient powerhouses are rich in anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid phytonutrient. Among older women, greater intakes of blueberries and strawberries were associated with slower rates of cognitive decline – the equivalent to as much as two and a half years of delayed cognitive aging.
- Spinach & kale: Lutein, a cousin to beta-carotene, appears to boost cognitive performance in older adults. Researchers also found higher levels of lutein in the brains of centenarians with healthy cognition compared to those with cognitive impairments. Lutein is also found in other leafy greens, winter squash, corn, peas, avocados, pistachios and even egg yolks.
And it’s probably not just lutein. Important flavonols linked to less risk of Alzheimer’s disease are present in spinach, kale, broccoli, oranges, tomatoes, olive oil and more!
Pro tip: Aim to eat fruits and/or vegetables with every meal and snack. Cook up pulses and other legumes at least a couple times each week. Check out 12 delicious ways to eat more beans.
2. Fish. Fish eaters showed slower rates of developing dementia or mild cognitive impairment. In one study of older adults, 31% of non-fish eaters suffered such declines, but among those who ate the most baked or broiled fish, only 3.2% developed either dementia or mild cognitive impairment. Other studies suggest that the omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish (EPA + DHA) protect both the heart and the brain. DHA is an important component of the brain structure. Choose fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, sardines, tuna and trout. Here’s your heart-healthy fish list. They also belong on your brain-healthy diet.
Pro tip: For your brain and your heart, enjoy fish a couple times each week. Learn more about safe choices here.
3. Nuts, avocados and liquid oils. More heart-healthy fats here. Diets high in saturated fats appear to harm cognition, whereas eating foods rich in monounsaturated fats might help.
- Cook with oils instead of butter, margarine and semi-solid fats like coconut oil.
- Snack on nuts instead of sweets.
- Add sliced avocado on a sandwich instead of cheese.
Here’s your primer on heart-healthy fats What are the Good Fats for Diabetes and Heart Disease? (also good for diabetes).
4. Coffee and tea. Enjoy coffee or tea or both daily unless you have a medical reason not to. Decaffeinated options are also good choices. Just be wary of the creamy, sugary add-ins.
Pro tip: Enjoy a cup of brewed black or green tea in the afternoon to get a dose of tea’s health-boosting flavonoids. And here’s how to brew the perfect cup of tea.
5. Herbs and spices. These flavor bombs give us the same types of disease-fighting nutrients and phytonutrients that are in fruits and vegetables. Sprinkle more herbs and spices and less salt and other sodium-containing seasonings to keep your blood pressure down.
Nutrition and the Brain
The brain is one amazing organ, so let’s feed it right! The brain is critical for – well just about everything from thinking and feeling to breathing and walking. The brain makes up about 2% of the body weight, but requires about 20% of the body’s oxygen and energy. And this is the connection between the heart and the brain. A healthy heart is necessary for pumping oxygen and nutrients to the brain, and healthy blood vessels are necessary for carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
So yes, it’s not surprising that what you eat can help you keep your mental edge as you age, as well as help with your mood, memory and more. So a heart-healthy diet is a brain-healthy diet.
What else is part of a brain-healthy diet and lifestyle?
- A Mediterranean-style diet is a heart-healthy and brain-healthy diet. Check it out.
- Don’t smoke.
- Avoid highly-processed and sugary foods like toaster pastries, cookies, and snack crackers.
- Get regular exercise.
- If you drink alcohol, do so only in moderation.
- Manage your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
- Manage your weight.
- Get a good night’s sleep – regularly.
- Stay socially connected and intellectually stimulated.
- Commit to eating fruits and/or veggies with EVERY meal and snack.
- Treat yourself to a soothing cup of tea.
- Check your refrigerator and pantry for brain-boosting foods. Don’t have enough? Add a few to your shopping list. And smile because they all taste great and not a one is some weird or hard-to-find food.
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, is a Nutrition, Culinary & Diabetes Expert, Wellcoach®-certified health and wellness coach, Freelance Writer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator. She's also the author of four books, including a best-seller. She's a nationally-recognized media expert in high demand for print and online interviews, as well as corporate and one-on-one nutritional counseling. Jill's philosophy is that nutrition science should be understandable, realistic and oh so delicious.
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Like most of my patients and clients, I lead a busy life. You probably do too. Fortunately, you don’t need weeks, days or even hours to start living better and healthier. This blog offers timesaving strategies and bite-sized nutrition and health information. Come by often for tips and inspiration to healthy living – no matter how busy you are. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist offering credible, practical nutrition advice to keep busy people healthy. Yes indeed, we can be both busy and healthy.