While you should focus on your diet as a means to keep your body healthy and well-functioning, it’s equally important to feed your brain–because what you eat can definitely affect cognitive function. The human brain accounts for 2% of your body weight and consumes about 20% of your daily calorie intake. While scientists haven’t yet figured out how to prevent declines in brain cognition (including dementia and diseases like Alzheimer’s), feeding your brain properly can promote optimal function. Here are some guidelines to follow:
- Avoid big meals. Better to be a grazer and eat frequent but smaller meals. This will help avoid an overload of glucose in the brain, which works best with about 25 grams circulating in the blood (the equivalent of the amount found in a banana).
- Eat your omega-3s! Your brain is 60% fat, and omega-3 fats are probably one of the most essential nutrients for your brain. Studies have shown that these fats can protect against cognitive deterioration as well as positively influence mood. You can get them in a variety of foods including:
✓ Flax seeds
✓ Chia seeds
✓ Grass-fed beef
✓ Fortified eggs and milk
While fish oil does contain this type of fat, don’t just reach for the bottle of fish oil tablets in your local pharmacy. Nearly all of these contain high levels of mercury, dioxins and PCBs. Better to get your omega-3s from a plant (chia), high quality fish oil or krill supplement.
- Get nutrients primarily through food. Nutrients that boost brain health such as vitamin B12, folate, EPA and DHA, vitamin D and antioxidants are best consumed in a healthy diet rather than through supplements:
Vitamin B12—lean meats and low fat dairy products
Folate—legumes (such as lentils and beans), nuts and dark green vegetables
Vitamin D—fortified milk products and fatty fish such as salmon
Antioxidants—fruits such as blueberries and cherries, legumes and nuts
- Go Mediterranean! Recent studies have found that a diet enhanced with extra virgin olive oil and/or nuts appears to improve brain cognition as well as aid in slowing down age-related cognitive decline. Further, an abundance of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and minimally processed food has been proven to decrease inflammation, which is one of the causes of declining brain function.
- Overdose on sugar. Your brain requires a constant supply of glucose, but this doesn’t mean you should be downing soda and cookies. In fact, high glucose levels can gradually damage cells everywhere in the body, including those in the brain. If you want to keep your mind sharp as you age, be mindful of foods that cause spikes in glucose levels. These include more than just sodas and sweets—some grains can have a similar effect. Stick to whole, high fiber grains, as these are absorbed by the body more slowly (thus raising blood glucose levels gradually).
- Do soy. While soy was once considered a healthy protein source, we now know differently. You should avoid unfermented soy products such as tofu, as higher midlife tofu consumption has been associated with low brain weight. While brain shrinkage occurs naturally as we age, one study showed that men who ate tofu at least twice weekly had more cognitive impairment than those who rarely or never ate it.
- Use artificial sweeteners, period. I can’t stress this enough. The little pink, blue and yellow packets are not healthy sugar substitutes. Artificial sweeteners have not only been linked to a burgeoning waistline (read our recent blog on EverydayHealth.com) but also to brain cell damage and destruction. Aspartame, for example, is a neurotoxin that can negatively impact brain cells and may inhibit the ability of enzymes in the brain from functioning normally. You don’t have to look far to find a wealth of information concerning the dangers posed by these substances.
- Overlook your meds. If you can, avoid medications that might impact your cognitive function. These include Ambien and drugs containing anticholinergic (such as Benadryl and Paxil). It is very important to discuss your medication “cocktail” with your physician to make sure that the drugs do not interact in a way that could cause cognitive impairment.
When it comes to a healthy diet, keep it simple and clean. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and lean protein. You’ll not only nourish your body, but you’ll protect your brain as well.