Several foods and food groups can help contribute to increased brain health. Often, this is due to the vitamins and antioxidants within the foods that protect brain cells and neural pathways in the brain. Many of these same foods have been proven to produce, or stimulate the production of, new neurons and pathways. These foods are often referred to as being “brain healthy.” Some examples include green leafy vegetables as well as other dark fruits and vegetables. Foods high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as many types of fish, also promote brain health. These foods help decrease a person’s risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, slow progression of the disease, and in some instances help improve memory function in the mild stage of disease. If you or your loved one are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, or are in the early stages of the disease, including these brain healthy foods into your diet could be beneficial.
Dark fruits and vegetables
Certain foods are more “brain healthy” or “protective” than others, and these can help your loved one’s memory. These foods reduce damage to brain cells and in some instances increase memory retention and overall brain functioning. Many of these foods are dark-skinned fruits and vegetables, but in particular spinach, kale, and collard greens are shown to have the most potent and beneficial effects on brain cells. Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, have high amounts of carotenoids and flavonoids, which are nutrients that can help decrease mental decline by almost 40 percent. For the greatest impact, your loved one should eat three or more servings of these foods per day.
The main reason that many of these fruits and vegetables are considered to be brain healthy is because they contain high amounts of antioxidants. Antioxidants are most commonly found in fruits and vegetables and help prevent or delay cell damage. Some common forms of antioxidants found in brain healthy foods include vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. All of these vitamins help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and/or help slow cognitive and physical decline in the earlier stages of the disease. The following checklist highlights fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants and are considered to be brain healthy.
Checklist: Foods that are high in antioxidants
- Collard greens
- Brussel sprouts
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Red peppers
- Acai berries
Omega 3 fatty acids help brain function
Omega 3 fatty acids can help lower your or your loved one’s risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and they can also help slow the progression of the disease in the early stages. Omega 3s can be found in several different types of foods, but they are mostly found in fish. The reason omega 3s can be so helpful to brain health is because they increase the number of neurons in the brain, produce protective chemicals in the brain, and reduce the formation of plaques and tangles. By consuming foods with this essential fatty acid, you can help improve your overall brain health and decrease cognitive decline.
Checklist: Foods that are high in omega 3
Fresh tuna (this should be eaten no more than two times a month because it has a high mercury content)
- Salmon (wild is best)
- Sea bass
- Grass-fed beef
- Krill oil and fish oil
- Flax seeds, or flax seed oil
- Canola oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Mustard seeds
- Brussels sprouts
- Green vegetables (both leafy and others)
- Fortified products (eggs, milk, cereal, etc.)
If your loved one is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, adding foods rich in omega 3s could help improve memory and slow progression of the disease. These improvements are often seen quickly and can be long-lasting if omega 3 consumption and healthy dietary practices are consistently observed. Eating one to three servings of fish per week has the greatest positive benefits, especially when compared to taking fish oil supplements. Omega 3 supplements can be helpful, but your body will absorb and make use of the omega 3s present in natural sources more efficiently.
Although omega 3 fatty acids help improve memory and boost neuron development, the consumption of a consistently unhealthy and unbalanced diet can negate these positive benefits. For example, if you or your loved one eat three servings of healthy fish or other omega 3-rich foods a week but are otherwise eating foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and refined sugars, the omega 3 consumption will not prove beneficial. A healthy, balanced diet is essential to getting the most vitamins and minerals out of foods.
Positive benefits of omega 3 fatty acids have been seen in those with mild Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; however, studies have shown that omega 3 consumption has not proved beneficial to those with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It is best to start these nutritional changes before symptoms arise or at the first signs of cognitive decline. For individuals who carry the E4 allele, a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, omega 3s have not been shown to help slow progression of the disease or lessen symptoms, even in the earliest stages.
Individuals who live in the Mediterranean region have higher life expectancies than most populations and have a lower rate of individuals with dementia. For this reason, as well as other nutritional factors, the Mediterranean diet is recommended as one way to help lower your risk for dementia. This particular dietary approach can also have a positive effect on those in the early stages of dementia, helping to noticeably slow progression of the symptoms. Additionally, the Mediterranean diet decreases the risk for heart disease and stroke.
The main component of this dietary approach is eating large portions of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Most, if not all, meals should be made up of these ingredients, with approximately six or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day. In addition, whole grains are very important and should be included in most meals. Fish and seafood are another essential component of this diet, providing protein and omega 3s. Most who follow the Mediterranean diet consume fish or seafood at least twice a week, if not more frequently. Conversely, red meat should be eaten infrequently, no more than once or twice per month. Poultry, such as chicken and turkey, can be eaten in place of red meat.
In addition to limiting consumption of red meat, the Mediterranean diet also suggests avoiding butter, salt, high fat dairy products, and refined sugars. Butter can be easily replaced in most cases by olive oil, which is a large component of this diet. Extra virgin and virgin olive oil are the healthiest types to use, as they contain rich antioxidants. In place of salt, other herbs and spices can be used to add flavor to food as well as to provide additional nutritional benefits. For example, the spice turmeric, often used in curries, helps prevent the formation of plaques in the brain, which could contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. High fat dairy products can easily be replaced by skim or fat free options. Nuts and seeds are also among the suggested components of the Mediterranean diet.
Nuts and seeds are high in both fiber and protein, helping to keep a person full for longer and contributing to a balanced diet. Approximately one handful of nuts per day is recommended, and you should avoid nuts that have been heavily salted or roasted. Some suggestions include walnuts, pistachios, peanuts, almonds, and cashews.