Expert Health Articles

Nourishing the Brain

Rachel Niermann, RDN, Licensed Dietician

Armes Family Cancer Care Center

When considering implementing a more healthful diet, many of us focus on the physical benefits we hope to reap. Look at a handful of today’s fad diets and you will see shiny promises of “fast weight loss,” “fat burning” or “metabolism boosting!” But there are so many advantages other than regards to weight when it comes to eating a healthy, balanced diet. A balanced diet provides overall nutrition to your body, from the outer skin to the very cells within that make you whole. One of the most exciting areas of research is food’s impact on brain health. How about eating healthier to improve your memory, alertness and cognitive function?

In general, a diet that benefits the brain is also going to be heart healthy, as both the brain and heart depend on a diet that promotes proper blood flow. This would manifest as foods rich in healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, and low in sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat. Researchers from Rush University in Chicago have recently created a new, more detailed diet for Alzheimer’s prevention called the “Mediterranean-DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay,” or “MIND Diet,” which combines elements of a Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. This has shown exciting results for reducing risk of Alzheimer’s.

What diet changes can boost brain health? While research is still being conducted and there are certainly no miracle foods, here are a few foods and nutrients that have promising benefits:

Omega-3 fatty acids: These are polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). Omega-3s include EPA, DHA, and ALA, which are found in different types of foods. DHA and EPA are mostly found in oily fish like salmon and sardines, whereas you can get ALA in various plant sources, such as flaxseed, beans and olive oil as well as specialty eggs. Numerous studies have found that high intake of PUFA-rich foods is associated with positive cognitive function and decreases risk of development and progression of dementia. Conversely, high-saturated and trans-fat consumption may have a negative effect on brain health, increasing risk of dementia.

Vegetables, especially leafy greens: Eating more servings of leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli may help slow mental decline due to aging. Their high levels of folate and carotenoids may play a role.

Berries and dark-colored fruits: These fruits in particular have added brain power because of their high levels of anthocyanins, a group of compounds that give some plant foods their unique blue, violet or red pigments. Research suggests that anthocyanins enhance memory and help prevent age-related declines in mental functioning. Eating a variety of fruit provides a range of benefits – be sure to include those dark blue and red fruits for the brain!

Lutein: This compound is found in egg yolk, avocado and dark leafy greens. Some studies have found that high levels of lutein may improve cognitive function. One study found that lutein paired with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, actually shows a more significant improvement. Again, balance is key! No one nutrient can be a cure all.

These are just a few nutrients that are being shown to play a role in brain health, and research is ongoing to find what works best. It should be reiterated that there is no one solution for improving cognitive function and there remains a multitude of questions when it comes to our fight against dementia. However, these are simple additions to your diet that you can be more mindful of when grocery shopping next. If you have questions about the MIND diet or desire more guidance on a healthy balanced diet, consult a registered dietitian.