Eat Well for Brain Health
Did you know that even though your brain only weighs three pounds, about 2% or less of your body’s weight, it uses 20% of your daily calorie intake?
No wonder, then, that it’s so important to eat well for brain health.
What comes to mind when you think about brain health?
For many, it’s preventing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in their senior years. While doctors can’t yet pinpoint the causes of Alzheimer’s, eating a brain healthy diet may help prevent its onset, according to EvergreenHealth Nutrition Therapy experts Joyce Horton, RD, and Shawna Tholen, RD.
“Heart-healthy fats like omega-3s and whole foods containing antioxidants are anti-inflammatory,” Shawna says, and she explains that reducing inflammation could help maintain overall brain health and reduce the risk for dementia.
Shawna also suggests having your vitamin D level checked. While Vitamin D is still being studied, it may play a role in maintaining cognitive function.
In addition to dementia, brain health is also tied to stroke prevention. Joyce says that maintaining good cardiovascular health, like keeping blood pressure and lipid levels in healthy ranges, can help prevent strokes.
“A poor diet has long-term implications for brain health,” adds Shawna. “A healthy diet can help to reduce the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels.
“There’s no magic supplement you can take for brain health, but eating right can give you an advantage,” Joyce adds.
Shawna says getting the nutrients from whole foods offers a synergistic effect, doing more for you than just adding in pills or supplements.
Recommendations for brain-healthy eating
- Maintain an overall healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that doesn’t include too many processed foods.
- Focus on eating healthy foods rather than on trying to get a specific nutrient or antioxidant.
- Eat breakfast to give your brain short-term fuel.
- Eat every three to four hours throughout the day so your brain stays fueled.
- Cut hydrogenated oils and trans fats from your diet completely. These are “bad fats” found in many processed foods like crackers and pastries.
- Read ingredient labels and avoid any foods that include hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils.
- Do consume healthy fats, like olive or canola oil, avocados, flaxseed, and nuts like almonds and walnuts.
~ If you don’t like to eat nuts, try using nut butters. Just make sure they don’t contain hydrogenated oils.
~ Use flaxseed oil or ground flaxseed. Whole flaxseeds take so long to break down that you don’t get the heart-healthy oil unless you grind them.
- Eat fish twice a week, preferably fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, or sardines that contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Studies found that seniors who ate fish regularly experienced less brain shrinkage and scored better on cognitive tests than those who did not.
~ Try using canned wild salmon on a salad or sandwich for an easy lunch.
~ If you don’t eat fish regularly, consider taking a fish oil supplement to get enough omega-3s.
- Get 20 to 30 grams of dietary fiber per day to help reduce cholesterol. Joyce recommends that you get fiber from whole foods, not just fiber supplements. Beans and peas, whole grains like oatmeal and quinoa, and fruits and vegetables are all good sources.
- Eat more meat-free, plant-based meals. Adults should eat approximately five cups of vegetables and fruit each day. Try these tricks for working them into your diet:
~ Toss garbanzo beans into a salad.
~ Try vegetables with hummus instead of dip.
~ Use beans in homemade soups to avoid the high sodium in many canned soups.
~ At snack time, choose vegetables instead of chips or crackers, or pick fruit if you want something sweet.
- Get your antioxidants. Researchers found that consuming antioxidant-rich foods – especially richly colored foods like blueberries and spinach – had a protective effect on the brain. Colorful fruits and vegetables, dried or low-sodium canned beans, and peas and lentils are all good sources.
- Limit alcohol to one drink a day for women and two a day for men.
- Drink caffeine in moderation. Coffee or tea may be good for your brain, but as with alcohol, don’t overdo it.
- Limit sodium to around 2000 mg per day in keeping with healthy heart guidelines.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
Adults aren’t the only ones who need to worry about brain health. Kids have their own needs when it comes to eating well for good cognition, Joyce says. “Make sure kids eat breakfast before school,” she advises, “and make sure they follow an overall healthy diet to help their brains function at their best.”
Joyce adds that the earlier in life you start eating right for your brain, the better off you will be. “Remember, brain health is for all of us, not just seniors,” she says.
- Find information on nutrition and more about eating right on the American Dietetic Association website, www.eatright.org.
- The Alzheimer’s Association website is full of medical, nutritional, and lifestyle information – www.alz.org.
- The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued new nutrition guidelines in 2010 – see more at www.choosemyplate.gov.