Writer: Karla Walsh
Shocking but true:One in 10 Americans over 65 has been or will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and about 1 in 3 seniors dies due to a dementia-related reason, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. And many more of us struggle with concentration, anxiety and other more immediate brain pains starting early in life.
No one aspect of health—be it diet, exercise, sleep or stress level—can guarantee a longer life, so it’s best to take a holistic approach to keeping your brain and body healthy, experts agree. Still, the dietitians and doctors we spoke to say that little decisions you make daily—like what you put on your plate—add up to make a big difference over time. In other words, that mango can be “medicine” for your brain.
“Daily habits can slow or maybe even reverse any cognitive changes that happen over the life span,” says Andrew D. Nish, an integrative medicine doctor and medical director of the John Stoddard Cancer Center in Des Moines. “We can heal just about anything with positive lifestyle changes.”
And the best news is that it’s never too late to start tweaking your habits to be healthier for your brain, even if you’re nearing or past retirement, experts say.
Your Brain, Explained
“The brain is probably the most sensitive organ in our body to nutrients, oxygen and chemicals in our environment,” Nish says.
The brain makes up about 2% of our body weight, yet it consumes 30% to 50% of the “metabolic demand,” he explains. That means that it needs a lot of calories—and the right kind of calories.
“I like to explain the brain as the ‘Ferrari of organs,’ ’’ Nish says. “It depends on a consistent supply of energy. In the standard American diet, 60% of our calories come from ultra-processed foods that are convenient but don’t resemble anything real.
“Our nutrient intake is less than half of what it should be, and when this becomes a habitual eating pattern, you begin to notice neurological symptoms like depression, anxiety and an inability to concentrate,” he adds. “We aren’t supplying the right nutrition for brains to function.”
The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage, or an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body. This can lead to inflammation, more rapid aging, neurodegenerative diseases, and even some cancers, explains Jessica Schroeder, a registered and licensed dietitian and the owner of Expedition Wellness in West
“It’s important to consume foods that help slow down or reduce the amount of oxidative damage in our body, therefore protecting the brain from cognitive decline,” she says.
We’re also learning more about how gut hormones and health are connected to cognition. The gut microbiome is made up of 100 trillion(!) bacteria, so when your gut health suffers, your whole health suffers, Nish explains.
“Antibiotics can disrupt gut health for years,” he says. “Our gut needs whole foods, which changes that microbiome for the better, reduces overall inflammation, and improves brain health. By eating a whole food-based fiber-rich diet with some fermented foods, we’re supporting the gut microbiome.”
Several gut hormones also influence emotions and cognitive processes. Insulin, for example, helps the body digest sugar, and without it your system can’t regulate normal blood sugar levels, Schroeder notes.
“If the body can’t produce enough insulin, you’ll experience hyperglycemia, or high amounts of sugar in the blood,” she says. “Over the long term, this can damage brain vessels and lead to dementia.”
Nutrients and Noshes for Your Brain
So now that you know why what you eat is so influential to your brain, microbiome and beyond, how can you best feed your brain?
“Aim for a blend of slow-digesting carbohydrates, protein and fat in your meals and snacks to prevent spikes in your blood sugar,” says Jennifer DeWall, a registered and licensed sports dietitian and the owner of Nutrition in Motion in West Des Moines.
The Mediterranean Diet is an example that has been proven to improve overall health and longevity, according to research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“Eat nutritionally dense foods and you’ll naturally feel more satiated and will cut down on the amount of food you need,” Nish says. “But it’s not just about calories in and out. It’s about the mix of micronutrients. You need 30-plus micronutrients, and one isn’t better than others. Our brain is complex and it needs all of the nutrients.”
That being said, there are some standout nutrients that are particularly important to incorporate into your diet for optimal cognitive functioning, Schroeder and DeWall agree. These include:
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts.
Curcumin, found in turmeric.
Vitamin D, found in fatty fish, mushrooms, fortified cereals, milk, yogurt.
B vitamins, found in leafy greens, legumes, salmon, tuna, chicken, cottage cheese, nuts.
Folate, found in spinach, asparagus, beef liver, fortified cereals.
“Eat seven to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day and you should be well on your way,” DeWall says.
Also think about deleting certain items from your diet. Remove refined carbohydrates and sugars, and replace them with whole foods that have more fiber. (For example, substitute sugary cereal with steel-cut oats.) Skip the pastries, processed snack foods and sugary drinks, and eat or drink these essentials instead:
• Fruits and vegetables
• Unprocessed whole grains
• Beans and lentils
• Grass-fed meat
• Olive oil
• Tea or coffee
• Plenty of water
Now start building that shopping list, and soon enough your memory will be so sharp you won’t even need to write it down.
Your Better-Brain Diet
“Aim to eat a rainbow every day,” says Jessica Schroeder, a registered and licensed dietitian in West Des Moines. “That’s because a plant-based, colorful, whole foods-focused diet is your best bet for brain health.”
To help you put this into practice, Schroeder shares this example day in the life. Use this as a guide, but remember that variety is the best fuel for your brain—so mix up your fruits, vegetables, whole grain and protein sources throughout the week.
2 eggs +
1 slice sprouted grain bread +
2-3 slices of avocado +
1/2 cup berries
1/2 cup salted and shelled edamame beans
2 cups fresh spinach +
1/2 cup roasted beets +
1 ounce crumbled goat cheese +
1 ounce pistachios +
3 ounces grilled chicken +
2 tablespoons balsamic dressing
6 ounces Greek yogurt +
1/4 cup granola
6 ounces grilled salmon +
12 stalks roasted asparagus +
3/4 cup homemade baked sweet potato fries