When we think about what we are going to eat for a meal, we may not take into consideration the way the diet affects our brain, good or bad. However, it’s something we should be aware of.
“There are a variety of things that contribute to overall good health, including brain health,” says Jill Kilhefner, registered dietitian at Porter Regional Hospital in Valparaiso. “It’s important to emphasize that it’s not just one thing you can do.”
Kilhefner notes that regular mental activity and social activity go hand in hand with food choice for optimum health. “There’s a lot of research on Alzheimer’s and brain-related disease that (suggests) nutrition and a good diet can prolong brain function and keep it functioning at a high level,” she says.
Kilhefner says that it’s important to incorporate foods into your diet that are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, especially B vitamins and protein with omega-3s, such as salmon. This translates into a diet heavy on leafy greens, fruits, nuts and healthy fats, with little dairy and red meat.
Falling into the what-not-to-eat category would be “butter and stick margarine, cheese, fried or fast foods, pastries and sweets, and red meats—especially heavily marbled fatty red meats,” says Kilhefner. If you can’t eliminate them entirely, it is recommended that they be limited.
Kim Kramer, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Ingalls Health System, notes that it takes 100 to 120 grams of carbohydrates a day for minimal brain function, but it’s important to choose complex carbs, such as whole grains, beans and fruits, and to spread them out throughout the day. Foods that are high in folic acid are also important to include, and Kramer says that fortified cereals, spinach, orange juice, broccoli, beans and eggs are good sources.
Vitamin E is also key for good brain health and can be found in almonds, blueberries, avocados, plant oils, pine nuts and pumpkins, Kramer says.
At the top of Kramer’s list of suggested brain foods are broccoli, salmon and pumpkin (which is low in calories, but rich in vitamins A, C and E as well as high in fiber and antioxidants).
“In order to get all these nutrients, you’ve got to plan and make an effort to include plant foods. You can’t get all those nutrients in one meal,” Kilhefner says. “It’s recommended to work them into three larger meals or five smaller meals.”
Kramer suggests making a pumpkin puree to add to oatmeal or pancakes, or to use in a cake in place of oil or eggs.
Kilhefner recommends two diets you can look to for recipe inspiration: The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet follows a heart-healthy eating style full of brain-boosting foods, and the Mediterranean diet emphasizes fish, vegetables, beans, whole grains and olive oils, all foods that promote good brain health.
Kramer adds that the Japanese diet, which is low in saturated fats and meats, but high in whole grain, fruits, vegetables and legumes, decreases the risk of depression by 25 to 35 percent compared to a Western diet.