What you choose to eat and drink every day can boost your brainpower in the short term and long term! Think you don’t need to worry about protecting your brain? Guess again! Cognitive decline is already taking effect in middle age — around age 45 — according to research from France. The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage and inflammation; for optimal brain health, start by emphasizing foods rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds.
Antioxidants help prevent oxidative stress in the body and may help delay effects of aging such as a decline in cognitive function. The antioxidant power peaks around two hours after the meal; keep a steady stream of powerful antioxidants in your bloodstream by indulging in a variety of colorful plant foods! Colorful vegetables and fruits are antioxidant go-to foods, which include the following fruits and vegetables:
• Dark Green (kale, spinach, greens, green peppers, broccoli, asparagus)
• Red/Purple (berries, red grapes, cherries, tomatoes, plums, beets, red cabbage, red pepper, eggplant)
• Orange/Yellow (carrots, butternut squash, sweet potato, papaya, mango, cantaloupe, citrus fruits)
Other high antioxidant foods include nuts, olives, beans, legumes, whole grains, garlic, onions, herbs, spices, and tea (especially green and white teas).
While research in this area continues to develop and advance, dietary patterns with antiinflammatory activity seem to include eating
• Colorful vegetables and fruits
• Nuts and legumes
• Fish and plant sources of omega-3s (walnuts, ground flaxseed and canola oil)
• Whole grains instead of refined grains
• Lean protein
• Phytochemical-rich herbs and spices such as ginger and turmeric (used in curry powder)
• Unsweetened Tea (particularly green/white), rich in bioactive phytochemicals
Be sure to enjoy
There is growing evidence that eating berries at least several times a week may prevent age-related memory loss and other changes in brain function. Berries provide high levels of antioxidants, which help protect brain cells from damage. Foods bursting with polyphenol compounds, like berries and walnuts, may also help protect the brain by removing biochemical byproducts that accumulate in the brain.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds come up as a brain-boosting food due to several components. Walnuts are rich in plant omega-3s and polyphenol compounds (similar to berries) and nuts and seeds, in general, contribute polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, thought to be helpful. But nuts and seeds are also the top food sources of vitamin E, a very potent antioxidant associated with brain health. In one study, people in the top 20th percentile of intake of vitamin E from food (around 11 IU a day) had a 70 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those in the bottom 20th percentile. If you include a cup of dark leafy greens or broccoli and a handful of nuts every day, you’ll likely hit this amount.
The Brain is Better with the B’s
All of the B-vitamins are suspected to help neurons cope with aging and some experts suggest they may help protect the brain. More research is needed, but there is some evidence suggesting folic acid, B6 and B12 may play a role in healthy brain-aging, and that low levels of these vitamins can lead to quicker brain deterioration. B-vitamins are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fish (B12 is in animal products and some fortified foods). A British study suggest daily B-vitamin supplements may slow the decline in mental function in people with mild cognitive impairment.
Switch to Monounsaturated Fats
New research suggests substituting bad fats with good fats could help prevent a decline in memory. Researchers found that the total amount of fat didn’t really matter but type of fat did. Over four years of testing, women over the age of 65 who consumed the highest amount of saturated fat had worse overall cognitive and verbal memory scores compared to women with the lowest amounts, whereas women who ate the most monounsaturated fat (found in nuts, extra virgin olive oil, olives, canola oil, avocados, etc.) had better cognitive scores over time. Making simple, deliberate choices when it comes to nutrition is important for each and every system in the body. Overall health depends on the things we put on our plates and in our stomachs. Choose healthy foods; it’s a no-brainer!
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the author of 25 books on nutrition and healthy cooking and is currently the Wellness Services Corporate Dietitian for Safeway.