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Eating for Brain Health

Who doesn’t want to have a healthy, happy brain as long as possible? And so, we try to get enough sleep (or at least, we should be trying to get enough sleep!), we wear helmets when we bike, and our kids know better than to get on their skateboards without their helmet (right?!).

But what about nutrition? Are there choices we can make to help keep our brains in peak condition? Nutrition alone can’t make up for other unhealthy choices. So, a plate packed with superfoods isn’t going to protect the brain from the ravages of smoking, chronic stress or too much alcohol intake. But nutrition can be one part of a multi-pronged healthy brain lifestyle.

Let’s look at some of the diets recognized as potentially neuroprotective (i.e., brain-friendly).

1. The Mediterranean diet and extra virgin olive oil:

The Mediterranean diet is one rich in fruit, vegetables, fish, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, beans, and whole grains and not-so-rich in dairy, meat, and sweets. There is some evidence that eating like this can help preserve cognitive (brain) function over time.

2. DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet:

This high fiber diet includes all sorts of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, beans and whole grains. It has also been associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline with age.

3. The MIND diet (Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay):

This diet is essentially a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diet, with an emphasis on foods thought to be especially brain healthy. This diet is currently being studied for its potential to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

4. Nordic diet:

As you might expect, this is a diet that emphasizes fatty fish, whole grains such as barley, vegetables (with an emphasis on cruciferous and root vegetables), fruits (particularly berries) and legumes (pea soup, anyone?). This diet may help improve weight and blood pressure.

And what about specific brain healthy foods?

Again, remember the health of any person’s brain, likely reflects a lot of factors including sleep, stress, exercise, genetics, medications, drugs/alcohol, other health conditions, and diet. But if you want to do whatever you can to preserve your brain’s abilities as you age, here are some foods considered to be particularly brain-friendly:

* Leafy green vegetables – at least six times per week according to some experts.

* Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., wild salmon, walnuts, flax seed) ·

* Berries ·

* Nuts ·

* Beans ·

* Extra-virgin olive oil ·

* Whole grains ·

* Avocados

Perhaps equally important is being able to recognize that high saturated fat, high sugar foods aren’t considered brain healthy foods. So, while adding that handful of baby spinach to your plate, you might also want to replace your mound of potatoes au gratin with a potato baked in olive oil. If brain health is your goal, you might even want to trade that piece of cherry pie for a bowl full of fresh berries.

BOTTOM LINE: From the looks of it, brains like whole foods packed with healthy fats, fiber and a host of nutrients. If you need more structure than those general guidelines, take a look at the MIND (and related) diets. They offer a good starting point for making food choices that may help keep your brain happy and healthy.

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Dr. Candice Seti


California-licensed Clinical Psychologist, Certified Nutrition Coach, and Certified Personal Trainer

Dr. Candice Seti

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