By Annell St. Charles, Ph.D., R.D.
It is clear that eating the right foods may enhance brain function and possibly slow some of the age-related declines in memory and cognition that may occur. It may also be possible to prevent or reduce the progression of diseases of the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease. The following is a list of foods that can be considered “good for the brain,” or more precisely, brain food. These foods make up the basic structure of both the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, and represent the key phytochemical-containing foods for which researchers have demonstrated cognitive benefits. Note that where “dark-colored” foods are mentioned, the color must persist throughout the entire food, not just on the surface.
- oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, etc)
- walnut oil
- high omega-3 eggs
- walnuts and other nuts
- olive oil
- blueberries and other berries
- dark, leafy greens and other dark-colored vegetables
- wheat germ/whole wheat
- red, purple, or black grape skins and other dark-colored fruits
- curcumin (turmeric)
- canola oil
In simple terms, an optimal diet for brain health relies on whole plant foods that have not been stripped of their fiber, essential nutrients, or critical non-nutrient components through processing. It also consists of healthy fats derived primarily from oils and fish, and a colorful array of fruits and vegetables that are as locally sourced and seasonally fresh as possible. The terms “local” and “seasonal” have been commonly adopted in an effort to draw a distinction between foods that have not spent too much time sitting in containers, transport vehicles, or refrigerators but were recently growing in a nearby field.
Switching to a brain food-rich diet means breaking free of the habit of excessive convenience. Eating foods out of season assures that their nutrient content is lessened due to the effects of heat, cold, or exposure to light. Creating meals out of primarily packaged food items means that they have been subjected to manufacturing processes that reduce their nutrient density. An exception would be frozen plant foods, which are typically subjected to flash-freezing shortly after harvesting, thus increasing the conservation of nutrients. Convenience food products are also, in general, low in phytochemicals and would not be expected to provide the antioxidant or anti-inflammatory benefits inherent in whole foods. Food products, like food supplements, also lack the synergistic potential of whole foods since their available food components have been selectively designed. In addition, most convenience food products make use of inexpensive ingredients designed to appeal to consumer taste. This means that a diet high in convenience foods will likely include high intake of hydrogenated omega-6 fats, sodium, and simple sugars.
In essence, emphasizing a brain food diet means embracing what humans have known for centuries: that eating moderately and simply from a plant-based diet, with the inclusion of ample amounts of fresh herbs and spices to enhance taste, is most likely to deliver the gift of good health.