Aging well: Best foods for brain wellness
By Margot Carmichael Lester
“Most of the general public either believe that there’s nothing you can do about the aging brain – it’s inevitable – or that fish oil is the only nutritional supplement that helps brain health. Neither is true!” notes Mary Ann Lila, PhD, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University. “The brain is a complex organism and multiple structures within the brain are benefitted by a wide range of healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables.”
The Best Diet for Your Brain
“Thanks to recent research, we now know that our food choices – as well as managing stress – can have a profound effect on many conditions that affect the brain, including memory and brain fog,” says Sheila Dalton, a Nutritious Life master certified nutrition and wellness coach.
The optimal diet for brain health includes a delicious variety of foods.
Spices for memory and brain health
Spices like cinnamon and turmeric are loaded with antioxidants that help fight chronic inflammation. “Chronic inflammation can cause damage in all parts of our body, including brain tissue,” says Dalton, who’s also a board-certified Holistic Health Practitioner, AADP. “Turmeric’s active ingredient is curcumin which has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neurotrophic properties.” Add it to roasted nuts and vegetables, soups, smoothies and salad dressings. Tip: Always add a few cracks of black pepper to activate it and help our bodies absorb it. (see recipe below)
The best leafy greens for brain health
Greens like kale, chard, collards and spinach are some of the best foods for a healthy brain. They’re rich in contain vitamin E, carotenoids and flavonoids. These nutrients support connectivity in our brain and can reduce dementia and other cognitive issues. Greens are also full of folate, which improves cognitive and neurological function.
Nuts and berries for cognitive wellness
“These should be household staples,” notes Lila, who’s also a professor of food bioprocessing and nutrition sciences at NCSU. “They can be used in so many ways. Throw them atop a salad for a little garnish. Make any vegetable serving a bit more crunchy and/or colorful by mixing in a serving of berries and nuts. Put them into any smoothie. Or just eat them right out of a bowl as an alternative to junk food.” (See recipe below)
The best fish for cognitive function
Wild-caught fatty fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids – like salmon, mackerel and pollack – can help improve reasoning and logic and slow cognitive impairment. Tip: A serving size of just 3 ounces has a positive impact.
Download our healthy brain food checklist.
The 3 best breakfast foods for your brain
Breakfast gives our bodies the fuel they need to power through the day. Two popular breakfast foods also improve brain health:
- Eggs. No matter how you prepare them, eggs are an affordable and easy way to feed your brain. They include lutein and choline. Lutein is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent shown to improve brain function in older adults. Choline helps improve mood and memory. Tip: Just one egg a week can slow memory decline.
- Coffee. Caffeine helps us be more alert, improves concentration and increases executive function.
- Blueberries. On their own, on top of your cereal or in your yogurt or smoothie, wild blueberries are a true superfood. Research shows that – when eaten regularly — significantly improved processing speed in the brains of older people. Tip: Look for fresh, frozen or freeze-dried wild blueberries, which are smaller and have less water content.
4 foods to limit for better brain health
We can also help our brains by eating less of certain kinds of foods.
- Processed foods have a lot of added salt, sugar and trans fats. “In other words, the typical TV snack foods like chips and popcorn,” Lila notes. “Avoid highly processed carbohydrates, too, like cakes, cookies and pasta because those turn right into sugar in the bloodstream. Check out these low-sodium recipes.
- Trans fats, like partially hydrogenated oil and margarine, can harm the heart and the brain. While naturally occurring fat is necessary for proper brain function, high quantities of manufactured trans fats have been linked to inflammation, depression, decreased memory and dementia.
- Sugar causes inflammation. “Chronic inflammation is a stressor and essentially wears down bodily functions so they can’t perform their roles effectively,” Dalton says. This includes our brains. Discover tips for eating well if you have diabetes.
- Alcohol also contributes to inflammation and can influence neurodegeneration, brain thickness and other factors that impact brain function and health. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that even light-to-moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reductions in overall brain volume.
Learn more about how good nutrition also supports your independence.
Food insecurity and brain health
Eating healthy requires more than just the knowledge of what to eat. Processed foods are inexpensive and readily available. Nutrient-rich, fresh foods can be unaffordable or hard to find if you can’t access a grocery store. Many government agencies, nonprofits and faith-based organizations offer food assistance for older adults:
- USDA food assistance programs
- Meals on Wheels America service directory
- Feeding America food bank directory
- USDA food distribution on Indian reservations
How to start helping your brain with food
Making even one dietary change can make a difference.
“The most important message is to be proactive,” Lila counsels. “As an older adult, we have it within our own hands to do everything we need to maintain our brain’s vigorous functioning. We do not need to be at the mercy of aging. We can stay in top form with attention to diet, physical exertion, and good old-fashioned socializing. All these things work hand in hand to keep brains sharp and alert.”
Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be experiencing a healthcare condition or medical emergency.
2 recipes for brain health
Nuts, berries and turmeric are terrific brain foods. Check out these two recipes featuring these nutrient-dense ingredients.
Amazing Wild Blueberry Salsa
From Dr. Mary Ann Lila, PhD
Director of the Plants for Human Health Institute
Professor of Food Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences.
North Carolina State University
- 2 cups wild blueberries fresh or frozen (thawed)
- 1/2 med onion (red or white) diced small
- 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced (add more to taste)
- 1 med red bell pepper, diced small
- 3 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro
- 1/4 cup lime or lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- pinch of cinnamon
- Combine all ingredients, folding blueberries in last.
- Refrigerate for 1 hour or more to blend flavors.
- Serve with corn chips (“scoops” work best) or use as a relish with meat and poultry dishes.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon curry powder
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups raw, shelled pepitas
- Preheat oven to 350 F.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
- Heat olive oil on medium-low in a medium skillet.
- Add turmeric and curry powder.
- Cook until fragrant, stirring continuously, about 1 minute.
- Turn off the heat and stir in the honey and salt.
- Add pepitas and stir to coat.
- Spread pepitas on the baking sheet and roast in the center of the oven for 10 minutes, stirring and turning the sheet after 5 minutes. (They’ll look moist right out of the oven but will crisp up when they cool.)
- Cool completely in a single layer, then break apart any clusters and transfer to a jar for easy shared snacking.
Adapted from Run Fast, Eat Slow: Nourishing Recipes for Athletes by Elyse Kopecky and Shalane Flanagan (Rodale Books, 2016).
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