5 Foods to Eat for Better Brain Health

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Scientists have discovered that tweaking your diet could protect your memory and thinking abilities as you age. Eating more berries, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, wine, and olive oil could mean a healthier brain, research shows.

Data from 40 years of health information and interviews with just over 12,000 nurses from the Nurses’ Health Study, an investigation into the risk factors for chronic diseases in women, has yielded clues about the kind of diet that can help protect your brain over time. Researcher Jae Hee Kang, ScD, assistant professor of medicine and associate epidemiologist with Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, presented a summary of results from the study to an audience of doctors, nurses, health coaches, and dietitians interested in bringing nutrition into medical care at the International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine 2016 this summer in Washington D.C.

According to the research, you should eat:

1. Berries

People who eat strawberries and blueberries at least once a week have a slower rate of cognitive decline than those who eat berries less often, says Kang. Add berries to breakfast, smoothies, or desert, or just eat them as a snack. Freeze extra if you buy or pick plenty in season – or use flash-frozen berries the rest of the year.

2. Leafy greens

Aim for at least five to seven servings of leafy greens weekly. Leafy greens include spinach, collards, kale, arugula, beet and turnip greens, and broccoli greens. “The women in the Nurses’ Health Study with the highest consumption of leafy greens saw the slowest rate of decline,” explains Kang.

3. Cruciferous vegetables

Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. These are the cruciferous vegetables that, if eaten at least three times a week, appear to protect your brain and your cognition.

4. Red wine

Alcohol consumption is a hot topic in health circles, but data from the Nurses’ Health Study revealed that consuming one or two alcoholic drinks a day is protective of your brain. Drink more than that, and you might actually be doing your brain some harm.

Kang says she’s not advising people who generally abstain from drinking alcohol to start – nor is she advising you to drink alcohol if your doctor or pharmacist has advised otherwise. Rather, she says, research results show that if you already drink a glass of wine with dinner, you can do so without worrying about your brain. One glass is 5 ounces of wine, however, so keep an eye on the pour.

5. Olive oil

People who use olive oil instead of other fats for cooking and food preparation may reap long-term brain-protective benefits. Olive oil is high in calories, so you may not want to add it to every meal. But it’s a healthy choice if you want to make your own salad dressings or cook with a little bit of oil.

All of these foods contain antioxidants -- nutrients that help counter the wear and tear of time, aging, and environment on your brain. You can’t overdose on antioxidants – so the more you can pack into your day, the better. And here’s another good reason to make these changes – your family. Although a healthier diet can help you at any age, those who have been eating these foods since childhood or young adulthood see the largest brain health benefits. Eating antioxidant-packed meals and snacks sets a healthy example for the younger people in your life.

If you’re looking for a complete diet plan to follow, “the best evidence so far is for the Mediterranean diet,” says Kang, adding that some research suggests a Mediterranean diet “makes you cognitively younger by one to two years.” The diet is based on the traditional eating patterns of people living around the Mediterranean, includes plenty of vegetables, whole grains, and fruit as well as some fish, nuts, extra virgin olive oil, and wine. To reap maximum benefits from this way of eating, opt for whole foods instead of processed foods, cut out fatty fare, and cut way back on processed or red meat.

Depending on your living situation, you may find that you either need to try new recipes and learn to cook some of these plant-based meals yourself – or that you and your family members should talk to a food service about creating healthier options, such as including more leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and berries. Kang cites simply using olive oil instead of butter or other fats as one example of an easy and brain-healthy switch to make.

If you need another reason to ask for olive oil, research published in the September 2014 issue of the journal Neurobiology of Aging shows that a diet high in saturated fat or trans fats is linked to a higher risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Saturated fat is found in animal sources, such as butter, cheese, dairy, lard, and meat. Oils found in fatty fish, nuts, avocados, and other plants are healthier for your brain, argue researchers.

No matter your age, you can reap the benefit of tweaking your diet for brain health.

“We have reason to believe that even late-life diet changes can make an important difference. We saw that in heart health—older folks who adopt a low-fat plant-based diet, along with other healthful lifestyle changes, can reverse their heart disease, just as younger people can,” says researcher Neal Barnard, MD, founder and president of the Washington D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and author of Power Foods for the Brain. “We believe the same is true of the brain. Evidence has shown that exercise, for example, reverses brain shrinkage, even in people who already have memory problems, or mild cognitive impairment.”

Tips on how to encourage a food service company to offer more plant-based menu options, can be found in the toolkit developed by the PCRM, which includes ideas for letters you can write and menus you can ask ARAMARK and Sodexo, as well as other food service companies, to provide.

The PCRM’s seven dietary guidelines to help lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be found here.