You pay attention to what you eat, exercise regularly, and don’t smoke. You do things to take care of your heart, you avoid too much salt and added sugars in your diet, and you limit the amount of processed foods you eat. But are you also taking care of your brain health?
June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, and it’s a great time to consider whether your diet is helping to keep that noggin as strong as possible. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Plaques form in the brain, which leads to a gradual loss of cognitive abilities and a decline in the functioning of daily activities. Six million people in America live with Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the number of deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia increased by 16%. Additionally, 12% to 18% of people over 60 live with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI causes cognitive changes that are noticeable but do not affect a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.
Here’s a look at the foods we should all include more regularly to support brain health:
Leafy green vegetables
Need another reason to eat this salad? Studies show that consumption of green leafy vegetables, such as kale, watercress, spinach and collard greens, was associated with slower cognitive decline in older people. And you don’t have to go overboard with Swiss chard! One serving per day of green leafy vegetables was all it took to slow brain aging.
Increase your intake of green vegetables by adding kale to your next sandwich, tossing a handful of baby spinach in your smoothie, or tossing sautéed chard into your penne. This refreshing smoothie from The Dr. Is In balances the power of baby spinach and watercress with the natural sweetness of green grapes and bananas.
Numerous animal and human studies have been conducted which support the beneficial effect of grapes on brain function. Grapes help promote healthy blood circulation and blood pressure, and reduce oxidative stress in the brain, all of which are beneficial for brain health.
Grapes are delicious in yogurt bowls, salads and appetizers. And instead of using grape jam on your next sandwich, try fresh grapes, like we did in this Sunflower Butter Raisin Sandwich.
As in other diseases, inflammation plays a key role in Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders. Walnuts contain several compounds, including polyphenols, tocopherols, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which help fight inflammation and provide antioxidant benefits. Numerous studies have shown the brain health benefits of including nuts in a healthy diet.
Nuts are a great snack on their own, in trail mix and other snacks. And you can also make some super tasty vegan “nut meat” to garnish nacho bowls and use to fill tacos.
One cup of fresh blueberries contains vitamin C, manganese, vitamin K, and anthocyanins, which give the small berries their colorful skin, all for just 80 calories. In addition to providing color, anthocyanins also play a role in protecting the brain. Blueberries are used in various clinical trials of eating habits, including Mediterranean diets, DASH, and MIND, to see how they can support brain health as part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
Blueberries are tasty to snack on, and you can also try them in Siri Daly’s Watermelon, Blueberry, and Feta Salad.
Nathan Congleton / TODAY
A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil contains phenols, a type of antioxidant, which help keep the brain healthy by reducing inflammation. In addition to protecting against Alzheimer’s disease, olive oil has been shown in studies to provide benefit in other neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and ALS.
Olive oil can be used in many ways, from dressing to stir-fries. You can even use it in baked goods, like Anne Burrell’s Olive Oil Cake with Blueberry Peach Sauce.
Nathan Congleton / TODAY
One of the best-documented foods for brain health is oily fish. Oily fish, including salmon, tuna, and herring, contain omega-3 DHA fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. These fatty acids help protect the brain and may lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Look for wild Alaskan salmon, tuna, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring.
Need some inspiration? Check out these canned fish ideas, or try this pan-seared salmon and roasted Brussels sprouts recipe, which also has the benefit of including nuts.
Chocolate / cocoa
Chocolate on the brain? This is a good thing! The flavonoids in cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, and chocolate are beneficial for areas of the brain that involve memory and learning. The main flavonoid, epicatechin, improves various aspects of cognition in humans, thus helping to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.
Enjoy the goodness of cocoa by sprinkling cocoa nibs on your morning cereal or yogurt, add cocoa powder to baked goods and smoothies, or try this delicious Chocolate Milkshake.
We know that milk is good for our bones and that fermented milk products help improve gut health, but new links are being discovered between dairy products and brain health. Our gut has its own nervous system and can produce many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain, such as serotonin.
A study of older Dutch adults (over 65) found a link between higher consumption of yogurt and buttermilk and better executive function, which helps us pay attention, remember details and manage time, among others.
Yogurt makes a wonderful breakfast or snack, and it can also be used in hot dressings, marinades, and dips, like Joy Bauer’s Cucumber Yogurt Dip.
This month and every month, let’s fill up on these brain-boosting foods. Think of it as a delicious and easy way to invest in your future!