What we eat impacts so much more than the number on the scale. Science is continuing to link things like mental health to what’s on our plates. It’s not just food, it’s brain food.
What we eat impacts not just our brains, it impacts our mental health. Whoa.
But this is good news! We have control over what we eat and can help keep our brains healthier for longer.
Want to keep your brain going strong not just now but for years to come?
Turns out the secret is simple:
The best foods for brain health have been under our nose for decades.
The Best Foods for Brain Health
The foods that improve brain function are the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet.
The health benefits of this style of eating have been touted for just about everything from reduced risk of heart disease to reduced risk of premature death, so it stands to reason that it would be good for other organs… in this case, the brain.
The brain loves the high (healthy) fat content from the olive oil, fatty fish and nuts, the abundance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
These foods all work together to keep inflammation in the brain to a minimum.
Inflammation? I thought we were talking about brain health.
Inflammation is a key culprit in just about every disease from heart disease to depression.
While some inflammation is important for things like warding off disease, when inflammation goes from short term, acute inflammation to long term, chronic inflammation, it causes problems.
Acute inflammation can lead to memory problems, a down-in-the-dumps mood and lack of energy. When inflammation becomes chronic those minor irritations become long term problems- cognitive impairment, depression and full on fatigue and chronic pain.
The verdict: the key to a healthy brain lies in reducing inflammation.
The Mediterranean style diet can help reduce inflammation- studies comparing the Standard American Diet (or SAD- a fitting acronym if ever there was one!) to the Mediterranean diet found that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those on the Mediterranean diet.
The Okinawan Diet has similar results (and a similar food basis, but they also include sweet potatoes. This super spud is low in calories but incredibly high in antioxidants, giving this spud free radical scavenging super powers).
What makes these diets so healthy?
They emphasize unrefined carbs like:
- Whole grains
- A moderate protein intake with a focus on legumes (and other vegetable proteins)
- Fish and lean meats
- Tons of fruits and vegetables
- Plenty of heart healthy fats (lots of omega-3’s, more mono/polyunsaturated fats, and fewer saturated fats)
They are also devoid of processed foods and refined sugars.
Let’s break this down a little bit more, shall we?
The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes unrefined carbs:
Things like whole grains, the aforementioned sweet potato, beans and legumes are all examples of unrefined or complex carbs that break down slowly in the body providing a steady source of fuel.
Carbohydrates provide the brain and central nervous system with their preferred source of fuel- carbohydrates.
Ensuring they are the healthy, less processed kind you are feeding your brain the best fuel possible- the premium fuel as opposed to the cheap stuff.
Whole grains are an especially good sources of unrefined, complex carbs. The brain, like all organs in the body, depends on blood flow.
So, what foods increase blood flow to the brain? The same foods that keep your heart and cardiovascular system healthy.
Time and time again whole grains have been shown to lead to a healthy cardiovascular system. A healthy heart means your brain is getting plenty of the blood it needs to stay healthy and function well.
The verdict: legumes, beans, sweet potato, winter squash and whole grains feed the brain premium fuel and keep the cardiovascular system healthy.
The Best Foods for Brain Health
A few foods to try:
- Sweet potatoes (without the sugar and marshmallows, please)
- Any kind of bean
- Whole grains (farro, wheat berries, quinoa, barley, oatmeal, brown rice, whole grain pastas/couscous, bulgur wheat, amaranth, teff, and cornmeal).
The Mediterranean Diet only advocates for a moderate protein intake.
In this day and age where protein is king, bacon’s in its golden age and high protein diets are all over your instagram feed, the Mediterranean diet calls out high protein diets and instead recommends moderate consumption of protein- lean proteins and plant proteins at that.
Protein is often included in that list of foods that help you focus, and for good reason- protein helps keep you alert, focused and more active.
Psychology Today explains how it works: they say that when you eat protein it raises the levels of tyrosine in the body which triggers the brain to produce neurotransmitters called norepinephrine and dopamine.
These neurotransmitters act like chemical messengers that promote alertness and activity and tell your body to stay energized
But you don’t need as much protein as you might think.
In fact, most Americans eat far more protein than they need.
How much protein do you need?
Aim for 0.8-1.2g per kilogram of bodyweight per day (or, about 0.5g per pound) per day.
Be sure to pick lean proteins:
- Fish and seafood (we’ll get into those in more depth soon)
- Other vegetable proteins.
The verdict: lean proteins like poultry, seafood, legumes, nuts and seeds help you focus and keep you alert, but you don’t need as much as you might think: 2-3 servings per day is enough for most people.
It’s All About Fruits and Vegetables:
It’s always about fruits and vegetables.
To save you time in the future, when you have a nutrition question the answer is probably “leafy greens”.
No matter what style of eating you follow from paleo to vegan, it is the one universal nutrition truth: vegetables are king.
Although fruits hold their own as well.
So when we ask “what are the best foods for brain health?” the answer is the same as it is to most nutrition questions:
Lots of fruits and plenty of vegetables.
And to make the most of this brain food remember to get a variety of kinds and colors.
Different colors and kinds of fruits help improve brain function in different ways:
Pomegranates and berries offer potent antioxidant benefits which protect the very sensitive brain from the damage of free radicals.
Citrus fruits and colorful vegetables also pack antioxidants and help improve both learning capacity and motor skills as we age.
Fermented Food and Brain Health
Ok, so fruits and vegetables are good for our brains.
But we want the best foods for brain health.
What if I told you there was a way to make fruits and veggies even better for you?
The secret is simple: ferment them.
I am talking about kimchi, traditionally prepared pickles or sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, even kombucha, yogurt and kefir.
When it comes to foods that improve brain function we need to look at the gut.
It seems a little silly, right? But bear with me.
We have 100 trillion bacteria in our gut. In fact, our bacteria outnumber the cells in our bodies by 10 to 1. Since we are more bacteria than human, we should probably keep these little guys happy, don’t you think?
Those healthy bacteria influence what your gut digests and absorbs, as well as affecting the degree of inflammation throughout your body, your mood and energy level.
Studies show that gut microbiota can affect brain function and behavior. It is so strong that regulating the gut bacteria is being explored as part of a treatment for disorders ranging from anxiety to depression.
Probiotics- both from foods and supplements- modulate mood, decrease stress and anxiety Your gut is your first line of defense when it comes to reducing inflammation, especially when food may be the culprit, and one way to keep the gut healthy is by feeding it healthy foods- plenty of fruits and vegetables, fermented foods and reducing the amount of processed foods and sugar.
Fermented foods act as natural probiotics which helps your gut stay happy, healthy and full of healthy bacteria.
Another secret to keeping them happy? Fiber.
Fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables is also known as a prebiotic, meaning it is a food for probiotics. Prebiotics like fiber provide your healthy gut bacteria army with plenty of food to munch on.
The verdict: eating a variety of fruits and vegetables helps reduce the effects of age-related conditions like Alzheimer's disease or dementia and improve learning capacity and motor skills. Fermented foods keep your gut bacteria happy and healthy which can improve your mood and ward off anxiety and depression.
Healthy Fats for Your Brain
Emphasis on Heart Healthy Fats:
Being called a “fat head” never felt so good.
The brain is made up of fat and we need fat for all kinds of things from hormone production to proper brain function and structure.
But not all fats are created equal. The brain has some fats it prefers over others.
Let’s start with fatty fish like:
- Mackerel and others
These are an all time brain favorite.
They have the brain’s favorite kind of fat: docosahexanoic acid, aka DHA.
DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid and one of the best foods for brain health.
Our bodies cannot make it though so we have to get it from food.
DHA protects our neurons from injury, reduces inflammation in the brain and helps produce neurotransmitters and information transmission on axons.
And not getting enough fatty fish or omega-3’s can lead to decreased levels of DHA in the brain.
That’s a problem.
When DHA levels in the brain start to decline it can lead to memory loss, cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s disease. Mood disorders and reduced brain volume have also been linked to declining DHA levels.
But, never fear! It only takes two to three 4oz servings of fatty fish a week to protect your brain.
Healthy Fats for Vegans and Vegetarians
Vegetarian or vegan? You’re covered too- Flax/Chia Seeds and walnuts are vegan sources of Alpha linolenic Acid which the body can convert into DHA.
But it’s not only DHA that your brain loves.
Olives and olive oil, another tenet of the Mediterranean diet, pack a wallop of health fats as well.
Olive oil is a serious anti inflammatory.
One study even found it to be as effective as ibuprofen at lowering inflammation, and when it comes to pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, olive oil is effective there as well.
If olive oil can reduce other types of inflammation, it makes sense that it would reduce inflammation in the brain as well. Right?
Boy, have I got great news for you.
It sure does! Remember, inflammation can cause a decline in brain function. One big time cause of inflammation is free radicals.
Free radicals are a natural result of just about everything we do- pollution we breathe in, exercise, the foods we eat and even sunshine, all produce free radicals. Mostly this isn’t a problem, the body is pretty efficient at getting rid of them.
The problem comes when there are too many and the body is overwhelmed.
Enter olive oil.
Olive oil is packed with antioxidants which scavenge and destroy free radicals, thus protecting the brain.
But that’s not all.
It’s duty isn’t limited to free radical pickup- the monounsaturated fats in olive oil have been shown to prevent stroke and heart disease and may even be able to prevent Alzheimer’s disease by removing plaque buildup on brain cells.
Double duty. No wonder it’s on our list of the best foods for brain health.
Also on that list: nuts and seeds.
With their high content of vitamin E nuts and seeds- and we’re talking walnuts, almonds, pistachios, peanuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seed, tahini (sesame seed butter) and more- have been linked to less cognitive decline as you age.
Try for around an ounce a day to reap the benefits these tiny little brain boosters offer.
Foods That are Bad for Your Brain Health
So, we’ve talked about what to eat.
But, it’s not just that simple.
Even if you’re eating everything on this list you may not be reaping the benefits. You may be sabotaging yourself.
Sugar, and other highly refined or processed foods can increase inflammation.
Even if you are doing everything else right too much sugar in your diet can increase inflammation and do damage not just to your brain but other organs as well.
Think of your body as a campfire- it functions best when you have big long burning logs (protein, complex carbs and fat). If you only use kindling (highly refined carbs and sugars) your fire goes out quickly and in the long run you have an inferior fire.
If you put in a lot of junk or only use kindling your fire suffers- just like your brain suffers if you give it a lot of processed or refined foods because the brain has very little ability to get rid of the junk that reaches it.
Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function- and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
It gets worse.
It’s not just your brain that suffers: Your body also suffers- it has a hard time regulating insulin when you consume lots of refined carbs.
And those refined carbs promote inflammation and oxidative stress in the body as well.
The verdict: what you don’t eat is just as important as what you do eat. Focus on eating more of our healthy brain foods, while cutting down on the sugar and refined carbs and keep your brain healthy for a lifetime.
Brain Health and Your Lifestyle
We’ve got a few more hints as well, because what you eat is only part of the battle:
There are lifestyle factors that help keep your brain happy and healthy as well.
Spoiler alert: most of the things on this list are good for your overall well being and your brain!
Sleep. Inadequate amounts of sleep have been linked to increased inflammation in the body and the brain. So unplug, relax and get some shut eye. Your brain will thank you.
You knew this one was coming right? Is there anything exercise doesn’t help with?
Pumping iron or hitting the bricks for a brisk jog regularly leads to more blood vessels connecting to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought. More blood vessels means more oxygen rich blood, which the brain relies on for proper function.
Physical activity makes the brain more efficient, resilient and adaptive by increasing and strengthening connections between brain cells and encouraging new nerve cells.
Lower blood pressure helps your brain as well as your heart. And guess what not only lowers your blood pressure but improves cholesterol levels, fights diabetes, and reduces mental stress?
Did you say exercise? Right on all counts.
And just in case you needed another reason to exercise- a good sweat session can also protect your brain by inhibiting inflammation- this is the case even if you’re not getting enough shut eye!
Popping pills- probiotics that is!
Feeding your good bacteria with a daily probiotic leads to decreased anxiety, lower perception of stress and improved mental outlook. All good for the brain!
Our final secret to a fierce and fit brain? Keeping it engaged.
Learning, whether it’s a new skill or a language helps keep your brain stay active, busy and fit. Try a puzzle or do some math problems, draw or paint, read and spend time with people you love- strong social ties help keep your brain engaged as well.
Having a healthy brain now and as you age is a result of the sum of your diet and activities. Keeping it engaged and decreasing inflammation now will help to ensure that down the road your brain will be sharp as a tack and you’ll be cleaning up in your weekly poker game in the nursing home!