Table of Contents:
- How the brain processes energy
- What foods are good for brain health
- What foods are bad for brain health
- Brain health diet tips
- What brain diet is best for me
- How does supplementation fit into my overall diet?
- Healthy brain, healthy life
Everyone knows that one person who seems to be laser sharp 24/7, never missing a beat. It can actually be a little annoying sometimes, right? If we’re being honest though, we probably find it annoying because we envy their sharp mind and wish we could be more like them. What’s their secret? Why do they seemingly have some sort of superhuman power that we don’t?
While genes may play a role, these people likely nourish their noggin with a number of nutrient-rich brain foods and avoid junky, processed foods. Thankfully, this “secret” is something that you can do as well. In this article, we’ll be discussing which foods you should load up on—and which you should steer clear of—to support your brain and, consequently, live a longer, more productive life. Before we dive into exploring brain-boosting foods, let’s go over some basics that are important to understand.
How the brain processes energy
Despite making up only 2 percent of the body’s weight, the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, gobbling up around 20 percent of the body’s calories. This isn’t surprising when you understand that the brain is constantly active, even during sleep.
To obtain the energy needed to sustain this activity, the brain depends on a continuous supply of energy from a sugar called glucose. The body breaks down the carbohydrates in foods into glucose, which is transported via the bloodstream to the brain and other organs for energy.
What foods are good for brain health?
In addition to glucose, the brain requires certain nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to stay healthy and function at its best. All of these essential nutrients can be found in foods that you can purchase at your local grocery store today. Here are the top brain foods to regularly include in your diet.
Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, collards, and Swiss chard are among the best foods for brain health. They’re rich in brain-boosting nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene, and loaded with powerful antioxidants.
One 2015 study evaluated the eating habits and mental ability of more than 950 older adults for an average of five years. Those who consumed one to two servings of leafy greens a day experienced slower loss in cognition than those who ate no leafy greens at all. The researchers noted that the brain benefits likely stemmed from several key nutrients contained in leafy greens, particularly vitamin K.
No list of brain foods would be complete without fatty fish. This is because fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines, are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids—a type of healthy, unsaturated fat. About 60 percent of your brain is made of fat and about half of that fat is the omega-3 variety. Omega-3s are vital for brain health for a number of reasons, including supporting learning, memory, and mood.
One 2017 study found that people with high levels of omega-3s had increased blood flow to the brain. The researchers also identified a connection between omega-3 levels and better cognition. Not bad for a delicious salmon dinner!
For being so small, berries sure are powerful. From blackberries to blueberries to strawberries, research has shown that the antioxidant compounds in berries have many positive effects on the brain.
Berries contain phytochemicals such as anthocyanins, caffeic acid, catechin, quercetin, kaempferol, and tannin, all of which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Nuts and seeds
If you don’t like fish, eating nuts and seeds can also provide you with omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, they’re a rich source of vitamin E, which protects cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals. One seed that stands out as a brain food is pumpkin seeds. These tasty seeds are bursting with antioxidants, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper, all of which are very important for brain health.
What foods are bad for brain health?
Just as there are foods that support brain health, there are also foods that have a negative impact on your brain. The following foods should not be a part of your brain health diet.
Americans eat nearly 66 pounds of added sugar per person a year, and most of it is refined. A high intake of refined sugar not only increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease—it also has a negative effect on your brain.
A 2017 study found that people who regularly consume sugary drinks are more likely to have a poorer memory, smaller overall brain volume, and a significantly smaller hippocampus (an area of the brain important for learning and memory) than those who don’t.
Instead of consuming sodas, candy, and sugar-laden treats, turn to whole foods like fruit to get your sweet fix. As we learned earlier, berries are particularly beneficial for your brain!
Refined carbohydrates like white bread and pasta won’t do your brain any favors. These foods are stripped of their nutrients so there’s no fiber to slow down their digestion. Instead, these processed carbohydrates rush through your system and spike your blood sugar, which could lead to issues with memory or cognition.
Instead, opt for complex carbs like brown rice, quinoa, barley, and faro. These contain fiber, which nurtures your gut bacteria and regulates inflammation—two things that are good for brain health.
Trans fatty acids (or trans fats) are a type of artificial fat commonly found in shortening, margarine, frosting, snack foods, ready-made cakes, and prepackaged cookies. Aside from being inflammatory and horrible for heart health, studies show that when people consume higher amounts of trans fats, they tend to have an increased risk of poorer memory, lower brain volume, and cognitive decline.
The primary dietary source for trans fats in processed food is “partially hydrogenated oils.” Look for them on the ingredient lists of packaged foods and run the other way if you see them.
While they might taste good, processed foods tend to be high in sugar, added fats, and salt. Common processed foods include chips, sweets, instant noodles, microwave popcorn, store-bought sauces, ready-made meals, and lunchmeat. These types of foods are generally high in calories, yet very low in nutrients.
Always opt for fresh, whole foods when possible. Your brain (and body) will thank you.
Most people know that alcohol isn’t the healthiest thing to consume, but many don’t know that alcohol is actually a neurotoxin. The brain is a major target for the actions of alcohol, and heavy alcohol consumption has long been associated with brain damage and atrophy. More recent research, however, shows that even moderate drinkers can have similar effects. If you want to protect your brain, lay off the booze.
Brain health diet tips
Now that you know some healthy foods to include in your diet and some not-so-healthy foods to avoid, let’s go over some general tips for eating a brain-healthy diet:
Shop the perimeter of the grocery store
Do the bulk of your grocery shopping on the perimeter of the store, as this is where the fresh, whole foods like fruits, veggies, and meats are found. Avoid the inner aisles (a.k.a. “the death rows”) as much as possible, as this is where processed foods live.
Eat a higher fat, lower carb diet
Researchers at John Hopkins found that a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet may improve brain function and memory in adults with mild cognitive problems. Load up on sources of healthy fats such as avocado, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, as well as an assortment of veggies. Include lean meat and fish as desired, and try to keep your starch and fruit consumption on the lower side. Not only is this a nutritious way of eating in general—it’s healthy for your brain, too.
Eat the rainbow
Make it a goal to fill your shopping cart with as many colors as possible. The most vibrantly colored fruits and veggies are the richest in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and nutrients that can benefit brain health.
Experiment with intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. For example, one such pattern could involve only eating during an 8-hour window during the day. Several studies have shown that intermittent fasting may have important benefits for brain health including increasing the growth of new neurons.
What brain diet is best for me?
It’s important to note that there is no perfect diet for everyone. Everybody is different so while a low-carb, high-fat diet that includes intermittent fasting might work great for one person, it might not be the best fit for someone else.
It’s best to work with a health professional who can run blood tests to determine if you have any vitamin or nutrient deficiencies. From there, you can work with your practitioner to find the right diet for your needs.
Healthy brain, healthy life
A healthy brain is essential for living a long, full life. While the health of your brain is not fully in your control, eating a brain-healthy diet can go a long way in supporting your brain. Brain health matters no matter your age. The choices you make today can help you have a healthier brain tomorrow.