Did you know the foods we eat can help or hurt our cognitive health? Stay sharp by adding these top 10 brain health foods to your diet and avoiding these 5 inflammatory foods.
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Why do the foods we eat (or don’t eat) matter when it comes to our cognitive health? It all comes down to chronic inflammation!
When we are hurt or sick, our immune system sends armies of white blood cells to fight off the injury or illness and repair damaged tissue. With more blood flowing to the source of harm, we feel discomfort, swelling, redness, and heat. This is why an ankle swells up when sprained. Without inflammation, healing can't happen.
But chronic inflammation happens even when there isn’t an injury or illness. Your body, unable to tell the difference, sends white blood cells to attack healthy tissue instead.
Chronic inflammation can lead to many serious conditions, from diabetes to heart disease. And it also affects your brain! It can increase your chances of developing neurological issues, including depression, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease.
The good news is, you can avoid chronic inflammation by adding these foods to your plate!
You may be able to delay cognitive aging by 2.5 years simply by eating more berries. Antioxidants play a role in keeping inflammation at bay, and it’s thought that the ellagic acid in particular may help prevent age-related cognitive decline.
Did you know dementia patients have low levels of omega-3s? Walnuts are not only high in omega-3 fatty acids, but they’ve also got lots of polyphenols, both of which combat oxidative stress and inflammation.
Beans aren’t just good for your heart, they’re a great brain food! High in fiber, beans keep you full longer and stabilize blood sugar, which keeps energy up and concentration easier. They’re also loaded with B vitamins, which are critical for creating the neurotransmitters in your brain that pass signals between nerves.
Another high fiber brain health food, whole grains, like brown rice and oatmeal, are also a rich source of the antioxidant Vitamin E, which protects your cells from oxidative stress. A diet high in Vitamin E is linked with improved cognition and decreased risk for Alzheimer’s.
Beets are packed with dietary nitrates which convert to nitric oxide in your body, dilating your blood vessels so blood and oxygen can get where it needs to go, from your muscles to your brain. Studies show all this increased blood flow to your brain may prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia.
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Want to stay sharp? Eat more greens. A 5-year study published in Neurology showed that older folks who eat at least one serving of leafy greens a day were cognitively 11 years younger than the folks with similar lifestyles who do not eat leafy greens. Can’t stomach kale? It’s OK...it’s sometimes acquired taste, especially if you’re new to plant-based eating. Here are some tips for sneaking leafy greens into your diet while your taste buds adjust.
Chocolate lovers, we have some good news: the flavanols found in cacao have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. In other words, your favorite treat can be added to the brain health food list. One caveat: not all chocolate is brain food. Skip refined chocolate and enjoy raw cacao powder (like in this chocolate peanut butter smoothie) or cacao nibs instead. The health benefits of cacao are degraded when processed, not to mention the refined sugar in most commercial chocolate products is inflammatory and can end up hurting your brain rather than boosting it.
Curcumin, the compound found in turmeric that makes it yellow, is an antioxidant that increases the brain hormone BDNF. BDNF helps new neurons to grow, and protects them in the process, which can fight off degenerative diseases of the brain. This is thought to be why senior citizens in India, where turmeric is commonplace, have less incidences of Alzheimer’s and better cognitive health in general.
A cup of tea does the body good! Green tea in particular is one of the healthiest beverages you can sip on. Loaded with antioxidants, green tea is linked with reduced risk for breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and you guessed it -- cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
We can’t stress this one enough -- drink a lot of water! Your body and brain needs it. Even just the slightest dip in hydration can lead to memory problems, trouble focusing, headaches, sleep issues, and more.
Refined breads and pastas are stripped of their nutrients so there’s no fiber to slow down their digestion. Instead, these processed carbohydrates rush through your system and spike your blood sugar. And it's not just adults who should steer clear. A diet comprised of refined carbohydrates has been linked to impaired memory in adults and kids.
Studies found that meat consumption is the most important dietary link to Alzheimer’s, with eggs and dairy not far behind. Just like saturated fat clogs the cardiovascular system, the blood vessels in our brain become clogged as well.
High in omega-6s, an inflammatory fatty aid, consuming vegetable oils, especially canola oil, can up your risk for Alzheimer’s. Chronic brain inflammation is also linked with depression and other cognitive issues. When our brains are inflamed, energy production goes down, the firing of neurons is slowed, and we’re often left mentally exhausted.
Did you know pizza and cheese are the biggest sources of saturated fat in the American diet? All this saturated fat can cause inflammation of the brain, higher risk of stroke, and impaired memory. Not to mention, aluminum is added to processed cheese and may be related to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Too much sugar causes inflammation and it also reduces the BDNF levels we talked about earlier, which are important for learning and making new memories.
Yes, when it comes to brain health, diet is important. But a healthy brain goes behind what’s on your plate. Boost your memory by adding these 5 things to your life as well.
According to the Alzheimer’s association, doing crossword puzzles daily is good for your brain! And even better if you do puzzles in a group.
Speaking of groups, studies show that having close friends may keep mental decline at bay.
Did you know when you inhale deeply you release nitric oxide into your lungs, which dilates your airways AND your blood vessels in the lungs, which means you get more oxygen in your body and your brain. Here are some of our favorite meditation resources to help you focus on your breath (and your brain).
Physical activity is good for your whole body, including your brain. Aerobic exercise in particular can boost blood flow to your brain, improve cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, and lower levels of stress hormones. So get moving!
This is a big one and can mean so many different things to different people, but having a purpose in life protects your memory and cognitive abilities, especially as you age.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a mom, wife, and nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor. She has her Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.