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Healthy eating is essential to keeping your brain in peak condition. Brain cells need a rich and varied supply of vitamins and nutrients to grow and function properly, and to resist and repair damage. Important elements supplied by foods help protect your brain from free radicals (unstable molecules that damage brain cells through a process called oxidation), which play a role in AD and other forms of dementia. The right foods may help boost mental energy, improve concentration, and strengthen communication between brain cells. They also may help preserve brain volume.
In a June 2018 study of over 4,400 cognitively unimpaired individuals published in the journal Neurology, Dutch researchers demonstrated that adherence to the Dutch dietary guidelines (which emphasize fruits and vegetables, fish and lean meats, nuts and legumes, and whole grains, among other healthy options) was significantly associated with larger brain volumes, including gray matter volume and hippocampal volume, both of which are known to decrease in AD. Healthy eating also helps lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, stroke, and disease of the small blood vessels of the brain all can contribute to memory decline.
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Which diet is best for brain health? Research consistently shows that a plant-based diet that’s low in fat and processed foods protects both your heart and your brain. One of the best-researched eating plans for heart and brain health is the Mediterranean diet, which limits meat and emphasizes fruits and vegetables, fish, and monounsaturated fats such as olive and canola oils. In addition to lowering risk for heart disease and cancer, Mediterranean-style diets are associated with a reduced risk for mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Eating a Mediterranean diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acid-rich olive oil or extra nuts may further enhance cognitive function, possibly because the antioxidant properties in extra-virgin olive oil help reduce oxidative stress on the body and improve circulation.
The Mediterranean style of eating may be particularly beneficial when it’s combined with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet used to lower high blood pressure. The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet, which incorporates both styles of eating, might lower the risk of cognitive impairment by 30 to 35 percent, according to research presented at the 2017 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. The MIND diet includes 10 brain-healthy food groups that adherents are encouraged to eat regularly, along with five unhealthy food groups dieters are advised to limit or avoid.
Another healthy eating plan that’s showing promise for halting mental decline is the Nordic Diet, which features local food favored in countries like Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden (including root vegetables, fish, and whole-grain cereals). While it shares many of the same dietary features as the Mediterranean eating plan, the Nordic diet might be even better at protecting the heart and brain, as well as encouraging weight loss. In a six-year study published in the February 2018 issue of Nutrients and presented at the 2017 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, researchers reported that among 2,223 dementia-free individuals age 60 and older, adherence to a Nordic diet was associated with less cognitive decline than adherence to a Mediterranean diet, MIND diet, DASH diet, or the similar Baltic Sea Diet, which was created by the Finnish Heart Association, the Finnish Diabetes Association, and the University of Eastern Finland.
Healthy Eating Essentials
A few food groups benefit health in general, and brain health in particular. These include:
Fruits and Vegetables
When it comes to eating fruits and vegetables, the “five-a-day” rule is good advice. The World Health Organization recommends eating five servings of plant-based foods daily to improve your overall health and prevent diseases like cancer and heart disease. A 2017 Chinese study found that eating at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit daily might lower the risk of dementia in older adults.
Whole-grain products, such as bread, cereal, pasta, and brown rice contain complex carbohydrates. These carbs provide healthy levels of the brain fuel glucose to increase energy and improve memory function.
Low-fat dairy foods, nuts, seeds, and beans, and occasional servings of eggs, poultry, and lean meats provide protein that helps keep your mind alert. They also supply vitamins and other nutrients that promote the growth of new brain cells and support healthy brain functioning.
Among the components that make the Mediterranean diet beneficial for heart and brain health are the types of fat it includes. Monounsaturated fats found in canola and olive oils can help lower levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Polyunsaturated oils, such as those derived from corn, cottonseeds, and sunflower seeds, help the body absorb vitamins. They also provide energy, which heightens alertness.
Limit sodas, including diet soda, which has been linked to dementia risk. Water is a healthier option. Also consider having a cup or two of tea and/or coffee each day. Tea is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, which researchers say may help hold off cognitive decline—especially in people at genetic risk for dementia. The caffeine in both coffee and tea is also showing evidence of slowing mental decline. A recent study found that older women who drink two to three cups of coffee daily may be at lower risk for developing dementia or cognitive impairment.
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