Your Guide to the Best Foods for Brain Health

The foods that you eat can enhance or cripple your brain's performance.

Posted Feb 13, 2020

GDJ/Pixabay
Source: GDJ/Pixabay

Today’s world is hard on our brains. We’re constantly connected to technology, and our attention spans are getting shorter. We don’t get enough sleep. Most of us are stressed out, and many are on the edge of burnout. Workplaces are strained by incessant changes, and jobs are increasingly demanding.

Today, you need your brain more than ever.

Ironically, your brain’s probably more tired or fried than ever.

When I neglect my brain (not enough sleep, not enough exercise, junky foods, too much wine, not enough downtime), I have trouble focusing. My ability to recall words or facts slows down considerably. When I take proper care of my brain (reverse the above list, i.e. getting enough sleep, daily exercise, eating well), it feels delightfully sharp. I feel delightfully sharp.

A while ago, when I posted on LinkedIn about nutrition and brain health, a journalist told me about The Brain Health Food Guide. It was love at first sight.

Created by experts at the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation (CABHI), this unique (and very motivating) food guide was created as part of a primary prevention strategy to prevent cognitive decline in adults over 50. I’m still in my forties, but I’m very interested in maximizing my brain function and cognitive health now.

According to a statement from nutritional scientist and Guide co-author Dr. Carol Greenwood, dietary patterns similar to the Brain Health Food Guide are associated with a 36% decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and a 27% decreased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (an Alzheimer’s precursor).

The Guide states that its recommendations are based on studies in adults over 50, which have found that positive dietary changes resulted in these rather mind-blowing results:

  • Improvement in performance on tests of reading and writing speed, as if they were nine years younger, after only four months of eating well.
  • No experience of memory loss (i.e. prevention of cognitive decline) after four years of eating well.

Here are some of my favorite recommendations from the Guide:

1) Eat leafy greens every day

Aim for five or more servings of vegetables every day (a fruit and veggie smoothie in the morning can help you get these in). Eat nutritional powerhouse raw leafy greens such as spinach, mixed greens or kale daily. Have cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts or bok choy three times a week.

2) Focus on the big picture rather than obsessively eating one “superfood”

Eat a balanced variety of healthy foods. Choose lots of different fruits and veggies and eat as many different colors as you can. You’ll get the largest variety of brain-boosting antioxidants and phytonutrients that way.

3) Eat berries three times a week

I love berries. You can buy them frozen, making them easy to keep on hand year-round. I stir frozen berries into hot oatmeal or dump some into my smoothie. This 2019 study published in Nutrients showed that a mixed berry smoothie maintained and enhanced cognitive function in a group of fatigued people in their twenties. The Guide also recommends eating four servings of fruit a day.

4) Eat nuts every day, with a focus on walnuts

Nuts seem to be important to cognitive health. The Guide recommends eating unsalted nuts or natural nut butter every day, focusing on walnuts at least four days a week. According to this 2014 paper in the Journal of Nutrition, “polyphenolic compounds found in walnuts not only reduce the oxidant and inflammatory load on brain cells but also improve interneuronal signaling, increase neurogenesis, and enhance sequestration of insoluble toxic protein aggregates.”

5) Eat legumes twice a week

Beans and legumes such as chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils add lots of anti-inflammatory fiber to your diet and are a nutritious plant-based source of protein. A diet pattern high in legumes was found to improve performance on the “Mini Mental Status Exam” in elderly people in this 2017 article in the Journal of Translational Medicine. It’s easy to keep a supply of canned legumes in your cupboards and toss them into soups, stir-fries or stews.

6) Eat fish or seafood three times a week

Steam, grill or bake your fish and avoid battered or fried dishes. Aim for at least one serving a week of fatty fish such as salmon, trout or sardines, as these are particularly rich in brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids.

7) Don’t eat meat or poultry more than once a day

I generally don’t eat red meat but do eat a fair amount of chicken and eggs. I’ve become more careful about limiting this type of animal protein to just once a day.

8) Stay hydrated

Don’t let your brain go dry! Be sure to drink plenty of water, it will help you stay fresh and alert (I’m terrible at this, by the way). Stay away from sweet or processed beverages.

In addition to these tips, there are a number of other general recommendations:

  • Avoid refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and sugar
  • Stick to lower fat dairy and skip the butter and cream
  • Use olive oil as your primary fat for cooking and dressings
  • Stay away from processed/prepackaged foods or meals
  • Limit candy or chocolate (the latter is tragic but true)

I’m quite inspired by all of this. I love the data (and expertise) behind their recommendations, and they translate into a handy guide to weekly meal planning. Enjoy this delicious variety of healthy foods, along with a brighter mind. Talk about a win-win!

© 2020 Dr. Susan Biali Haas