Food for a Healthy Brain

 Can we eat our way out of the dementia epidemic? Research shows that a brain healthy diet is plant based, and rich in colourful, varied, seasonal whole foods. 

Can we eat our way out of the dementia epidemic? Research shows that a brain healthy diet is plant based, and rich in colourful, varied, seasonal whole foods. 

I recently gave a talk for the Camden Carers Service about food and brain health. This topic is so fascinating, as is the brain, one of the most complex organs in our body.

To cut a long talk short, I've compiled the main messages from my presentation here.

In essence, eating for a healthy brain is nothing short of delicious and features a varied and colourful whole food diet. When you include well managed stress levels and regular movement, the studies show that you may be able to reduce your risk of dementia by well over 50 percent. This is a huge percentage - note that no drug on the market is able to do this!

A fairly recent MIND study looked into the benefits of the Mediterranean and other diets in relation to brain health and dementia. Nearly a thousand Chicago residents between the ages of fifty plus to a nearly hundred were followed for approximately four and a half years, and the participants diet and brain health was recorded on a regular basis.

What the study found is that even a moderate adherence to the Mediterranean diet led to a reduction in Alzheimer’s risk by 35%, while with those with stricter adherence to these diets the risk reduced by up to 54%. All diets studied in this research (Mediterranean, MIND diet and DASH diet) were also associated with better heart health and a reduced risk of diabetes and obesity: all of which are key risk factors for dementia

Extrapolating from the study, a brain-healthy diet is largely plant‐based and places particular emphasis on eating colourful, varied, seasonal foods including:

 Healthy fats are key to brain health; after all, made of about 60% of fat, it is the fattiest organ of our body. Paleontological evidence suggests, that when humans learned to fish, our brain size grew fast. DHA – a type of Omega 3 fat – is an abundant fat in our brain membrane. We can’t produce it ourselves: it has to come from food we eat, and it is rich in cold water fish such as sardines, herring, mackerel and salmon.

Healthy fats are key to brain health; after all, made of about 60% of fat, it is the fattiest organ of our body. Paleontological evidence suggests, that when humans learned to fish, our brain size grew fast. DHA – a type of Omega 3 fat – is an abundant fat in our brain membrane. We can’t produce it ourselves: it has to come from food we eat, and it is rich in cold water fish such as sardines, herring, mackerel and salmon.

o   green leafy vegetables (I would recommend 2-3 portions daily minimum. Portion is ~80g)

o   other vegetables – aim for 3 different colours per day! (2-3 portions daily)

o   berries (my recommendation is a portion per day)

o   nuts (my recommendation is 30-50g per day, provided you're ok with nuts)

o   whole grains (however, not all my clients are good with grains...not everything applies to everyone!) 

o   beans (not all my clients are good with legumes either..) 

o   fish

o   poultry

o   olive oil

o   wine (1 glass per day, with meals, preferably organic and local)

Berries provide powerful protection for the brain due to their high antioxidant content, beneficial fibre and relatively low sugar content. You can consume them fresh or defrosted; be mindful however if you eat them out of season, then frozen may be the best option.

The MIND study also identified five unhealthful food categories:

o   red meats (eat rarely, choose organic if possible)

o   fried and fast foods (one serving per week maximum)

o   butter (no more than a tbsp per day)

o   margarine (never, due to the trans-fats/hydrogenated fats)

o   cheese (one serving or less per week)

o   pastries and sweets (avoid all)

 

And how about lifestyle?

 

High levels of physical activity have been found to be associated with up to a 42% reduction in the risk of cognitive impairment in the future, suggesting that increased physical activity can greatly benefit brain health. Fitness levels have also been shown to be associated with better thinking skills and better memory consolidation, as well as with better mood and mental health. Half an hour of physical activity would be beneficial every day: half of this would ideally be with a moderately raised heartbeat.

Good sleep is also a key for good brain health. Sleep helps us to learn as it aids in remembering and consolidating new information while lack of sleep has been shown to interfere with this learning. Nearly all psychiatric and neurological mood disorders express coexisting abnormalities of sleep, suggesting an intimate relationship between sleep and emotion. As the most prevalent mood disorder, major depression has consistently been linked to sleep abnormalities, found in up to 90% of patients.

As chronic stress increases blood sugar levels, raises blood pressure, affects sleep negatively and also may lead to unhealthy food choices and increased ‘self-medication’ with food, alcohol or drugs, low stress levels are ideal with regards to brain health. Finding healthy ways of winding down is central for our brain health as much as it is for our long term wellbeing. 

You can read about the MIND study more HERE

So it seems that in order to keep our precious cognitive super-powers, we should aim to keep the diet as unadulterated as possible, keep moving and truly cherish our downtime. It does not sound completely unreasonable, does it?