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How to Keep Your Brain Strong

Written by Ali Donahue
How to Keep Your Brain Strong

Quick Synopsis

Think losing your memory and cognitive abilities is just a part of getting older? It doesn’t have to be. Here's how to keep your brain strong, at any age.

The Full Story

Want to stay sharp? Eat your leafy greens!

A 5-year study published in Neurology shows that eating your leafy greens is more important than ever if you’re hoping to stay sharp as you age. Older folks who eat at least one serving of leafy greens a day showed to have much slower cognitive decline than those (with similar lifestyles) who never or rarely eat their greens. They tested better in both memory and thinking skills.

Just how much “sharper” are these salad eaters? They were cognitively 11 years younger than the folks not eating leafy greens.

This is hardly the first study to link boosted brain health and leafy greens. A study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital found when when aging women ate eight servings of leafy greens and five of cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower), they were able to outperform their non-veggie eating peers on memory tests.

What’s so special about leafy greens? This is still being researched, but experts surmise it’s a combination of all the essential nutrients found in them. Leafy greens are packed with vitamin E, folic acid, vitamin K1, lutein and beta-carotene — all of which have been linked to boosted brain health and delayed memory decline.

What about fish and brain health?

When we think of food and brain health, the Mediterranean diet often comes to mind. It has been continually associated with better brain function, particularly in older adults. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts and limits consumption of red meat, processed foods, poultry, and whole-fat dairy.

Those following a Mediterranean diet also consume fish and because of the link between brain health and this way of eating, getting your omega-3s, specifically from fish consumption, has been pointed to as a great way to protect your brain.

But is fish helping or hurting our minds?

When researchers looked at the Mediterranean diet and cognitive health, they found that fish consumption wasn’t beneficial for brain function after all. While omega-3s may protect our hearts and brains, getting those fatty acids from fish may not be in our best interest. This study found excessive seafood intake to actually create worse cognitive function — which may be due to neurotoxic contaminates in fish, like mercury.

For a long time, we’ve warned pregnant women to steer clear from certain types of fish during pregnancy due to the damage even small amounts of mercury can have on the developing brain. These findings suggests fish consumption also may have a similar negative affect on the aging brain.

How do I get plant-based omega-3s?

So do we forget about omega-3s altogether if we’re nixing fish from the menu? No. These fatty acids have been shown to benefit our heart and brain health — but you don’t need fish to get them. You can get your omega-3s from plant-based sources, like flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and organic soybeans.

How much do you need? According to the Whole Health Organization, we need at least half a percent of your daily calories, which as Dr. Michael Greger, MD, points out, can be met with just a tablespoon of ground flax seeds.

Ground Flax Seeds

Fat’s role in your cognitive function

What else keeps us sharp — or impairs us? The same Mediterranean diet study that found no cognitive benefits from fish, saw vegetable consumption and the ratio between unsaturated fats and saturated fats as key components for protecting our brains. Or, as Dr. Greger points out, this ratio is “essentially plant fats to animal fats.”

One study on older women found that saturated fat, more often found in animal products than plant-based foods, was associated with cognitive and memory decline. And the more saturated fat consumed, the worse the decline. The women with the most saturated fat consumption compared to those with the least saturated fat consumption experienced a mental change equivalent to 6 years!

At the end of the day, there is more research to be done on brain health and diet, specifically concerning the complexities of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. But what we do know? Diet plays a role in protecting our health and brains. So why not err on side of caution (and the latest nutrition science) by adding more spinach to your plate?

Not a salad person? Here are some tips for sneaking leafy greens into your diet.

Key Takeaways

  • Cognitive decline doesn't have to be "just another part of getting older."

  • Diet plays a major role in our cognitive function!

  • Leafy greens are a big time brain booster and should be eaten at the very last once a day.

  • Fish isn't the brain healthy food we're often told it is - researchers found that excessive seafood intake can cause brain function decline.

  • You can absolutely get your omega-3s from plants! Try walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and organic soy beans. 

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