Here’s an important question: what is brain food? Or, in other words, what can you eat to keep your brain healthy? Not surprisingly, foods that contribute to better overall health and the prevention of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other chronic conditions also keep our minds sharp, our memories intact and likely help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. While the study of nutrition and brain health is relatively new, a lot of evidence suggests that a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet featuring meals filled with big helpings of colorful vegetables, fish one or two times per week, high fiber fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and a dose of healthy fats will keep your brain healthy and strong for a lifetime.
There are many reasons why plants, fish and healthy fats are good for your brain. A list of brain food should include plants, especially dark, leafy greens and other deeply colored fruits and vegetables, which are packed with anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients that protect brain neurons and every other cell in your body from the wear, tear, and aging that comes with every day living. Healthy fats, like those found in fish and seafood, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and avocados, keep the lines of communication between brain cells open and clear. Other nutrients found in plants, like fiber, folate, and vitamin E are also linked with better memory and reduced risk of all forms of cognitive decline. The good news: there are infinite ways to blend brain-boosting ingredients into flavor-packed meals, including this delicious lime, jalapeno and herb-spiked shrimp and avocado salad we recently made in our Your Healthy Kitchen studio. Check it out!
Results from several long-term studies strongly suggest that healthy fats and plant-based phytochemicals may be equally important for reducing the risk of dementia. The most recent of these studies examined a diet pattern dubbed MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Dietary Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), which combined aspects of the Mediterranean and DASH (Diet Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, but also dialed in foods that researchers thought contained the most important nutrients for brain health. Participants who followed the MIND diet guidelines ate fish once a week, lots of daily green and other deeply colored vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, poultry twice a week, and berries while avoiding red meat, fried and fast food, cheese, butter and margarine. Those who stuck to the protocol most closely had a significant reduction in risk of dementia over a span of up to 10 years. Researchers theorize that the abundance of healthy fat (and lack of unhealthy fats), combined with nutrient- and phytochemical-dense fruits and vegetables contributed the most in preventing cognitive decline.
Why Some Fats and Phytochemicals May be Extra-Good for Your Brain
Brain cells rely on healthy fats for proper communication, especially an omega 3 fatty acid called DHA (docosahexanoic acid), which is found in abundance in fatty fish like sardines, herring, anchovies, mackerel, wild salmon, Arctic char, and lake trout, as well as in sea vegetables (algae and seaweeds). Shrimp contains a lesser amount of DHA when compared with other omega-3 rich fishes, but it has a milder flavor and therefore, some people find shrimp easier to include in their diets. However, like all fish and seafood these days, it’s important to purchase shrimp that is caught or farmed in a sustainable manner. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch offers a handy pocket guide online to help consumers find the healthiest seafood products.
Our bodies also convert a fat called ALA (alpha linolenic acid) found in flax, hemp, and chia seeds, walnuts, and wild or close-to-wild greens like purslane and arugula into DHA. Since the conversion of ALA to DHA is somewhat limited (scientists estimate 15% or less of the ALA we consume turns in to DHA), it’s important to eat ALA-rich foods everyday if you do not eat seafood, fish or sea vegetables. Avoiding unhealthy fats, like those found in fast, fried, and processed foods may increase the conversion of ALA to DHA and improve the availability of all omega 3 fats throughout the body and brain.
Phytochemicals found in dark-colored fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions that likely protect the brain. In addition, some phytochemicals, like those found in berries and other dark blue and purple fruits and vegetables, cross into the brain and take up residence in the areas important for memory and learning. Interestingly, the large Nurses Health Study showed that women who ate berries more often had brains that were up to 2 ½ years younger, in terms of function, than women of the same age who did not.
There are endless, delicious ways to incorporate brain-boosting foods in your diet, and every recipe in the Your Healthy Kitchen archives fits into your dementia-proof lifestyle, so check them all out! You can also follow me on Face Book at YRMC’s Your Healthy Kitchen, where you can see what I make at home, every day, for my family and me, plus get insider tips, view my mini videos, and see links to food and garden related events in the community and beyond.