Each year, nearly 60 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier. Over 40 percent never succeed. However, that’s not a reason to write off eating a better diet to support your brain health. It is an amazing organ. It makes up only 2 percent of your total body weight. Yet, it uses 20 percent of your oxygen and 25 percent of your blood sugar or glucose.
It makes sense to want to give it the best possible fuel. But is a so-called brain diet the way to go? The answer is that it depends. The devil is in the details. Let’s look at what recommendations you’ll find under the hood with these plans.
What Your Brain Needs
A good diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is at the crux of optimal brain health. It’ll provide enough energy for it to function. It’ll also ensure that your body has the raw materials it needs to maintain its structure and day-to-day processes. The proper amounts are essential. You’ll need to get the right nutrients every day since your body won’t store all the vitamins you consume.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Research has found scores of evidence that supports the relationship between food and brain size. In fact, we’re here today because of our increased access to different types of food. One of the most important nutrients is an omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Compared to other animals, our brains are large in proportion to our body in part because of DHA.
DHA is essential for cell membrane structure. Yet, the human body can’t produce it in sufficient quantities. Therefore, a diet rich in this nutrient will support brain health. The best sources are cold-water, fatty fish like tuna, sardines, and salmon. You should aim for two to three servings per week, recommends the University of Maryland Medical Center.
DHA may affect blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Discuss any diet changes with your doctor before you begin if you’re taking medications to control either condition.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that your diet plays a major role in brain and cardiovascular health. One of its key points found an association between consumption of nuts and the health risk of diabetes and heart disease. Both these conditions can affect brain functioning.
The researchers found that consuming five one-ounce servings of nuts each week lowered the risk of disease in participants. It didn’t matter what type of tree nut but rather the quantity. Instead of reaching for potato chips for a snack, try adding some almonds or walnuts to your diet.
Fruits and Vegetables
The JAMA study found equally interesting evidence about fruits and vegetables. In addition to reducing your risk of heart disease, they can also lower your chances of a stroke. Many Americans fail to get enough of these essential foods in their diet, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And it isn’t just the vitamins and nutrients that you miss.
Many contain other compounds with potential health benefits. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with phytochemicals that have a myriad of effects. A review by the University of California found that consumption of berry fruits not only reduced your risk for disease, but it also improved performance.
Foods such as whole wheat and brown rice offer many brain health benefits. They can help you maintain a healthy weight by keeping you sated. Obesity can increase inflammation and impair brain function. Whole grains can also reduce your levels of both total and bad cholesterol. That can, in turn, lower your risk of a stroke.
You should aim for 4 to 11 servings each day. Avoid processed or refined grains. These methods remove the good stuff that makes these foods so healthy. They’re low in fat and provide ample quantities of the nutrients you need including B vitamins and iron. They also provide an excellent source of fiber.
What Your Brain Doesn’t Need
Some so-called brain diets may tout other foods that may lack the scientific evidence to support them. For example, the superfood craze gave rise to inflated claims about the health benefits of antioxidants. The tide has since shifted where over-consumption may increase your risk of disease and early mortality. Beware of diets that emphasize one food or group alone.
And look closely at any health claims a particular one may make. That’s when you need to use some critical thinking. Check the studies or experiments that different diets cite. Conclusions from animal studies don’t necessarily apply to people.
Exercise caution with any brain diet that recommends dietary supplements. Many such as turmeric have since been debunked. Remember, if a herb or spice has health effects, it should be treated as a medicine. Some products such as pomegranate juice may interfere with prescription medications. And claims about superfoods are nothing more than marketing.
Poor Quality Foods
Other issues involve the quality of the food you should consume. Empty calories from poor choices like processed meats, high-sodium snacks, and soft drinks can impair brain health. It may also increase your risk for mental disorders such as depression and dementia, according to evidence from a study published in the journal, BMC Med.
Your Brain on a Healthy Diet
To summarize, the best diet for brain health includes choices that supplement essential nutrients in sufficient quantities. Variety is important for optimal health benefits. Shoot to meet the following dietary goals:
- Two to three servings of cold-water fatty fish per week
- Five one-ounce servings of tree nuts per week
- Five servings of vegetables daily
- Two to four servings of fruits daily
- 4 to 11 servings of whole grains each day
The great thing about following this plan is that you’ll reduce your intake of foods that can worsen brain function. Together, they are a win-win strategy. Remember, it’s far easier to make healthy lifestyle changes than to follow a restrictive diet. You’ll have a better chance of success with a plan with which you can live.