Updated: Jan 26
Author: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT, Namaste Wellness Advisor and Director of Wellness Research
Interested in charging up your brainpower and operating at optimal levels?
Then take a good look at what’s on your plate.
In his book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Dr. Daniel Amen - a renowned psychiatrist and brain researcher - calls our brains “the most expensive real estate in your body” since the brain uses 20-30% of the calories that we consume. He asserts: “You can exercise all you want, think all the right thoughts, meditate, and take dietary supplements, but if you continue to eat highly processed foods laden with sugar, bad fats, and salt, and made from ingredients grown with pesticides, flavored with artificial sweeteners, colored with artificial dyes, and treated with artificial preservatives, there is just no way to keep your brain and body working at their peak. If your food is not the best, you will never be your best.”
So which foods help you operate at your peak?
Simply put, a brain-boosting diet highlights clean, plant-forward foods. The Mediterranean diet - which emphasizes vegetables, beans, fruits, and nuts, and deemphasizes meat and dairy - has been studied extensively and is associated with slower cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. In his book, How Not to Die, nutrition expert and founder of NutritionFacts.org, Dr. Michael Greger, proposes that the success of the Mediterranean diet is likely due to the diet’s high vegetable content and lower ratio of saturated fat. This is backed up by studies showing that consumption of fruit and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. In fact, one meta-analysis found that “an increment of 100 g per day of fruit and vegetable consumption was related to an approximately 13% reduction in cognitive impairment and dementia risk.” Considering that a single apple weighs about 100 grams, this is an extremely modest investment one can make in future brain performance.
As for saturated fat, Harvard Medical School’s Women’s Health Study gathered the data on fat intake and the cognitive performance of 6,183 older women over several years and discovered that higher saturated fat intake was associated with worse global cognitive and verbal memory trajectories, whereas higher monounsaturated intake was related to better trajectories. By limiting saturated fat (from meat, dairy and processed foods), and emphasizing monounsaturated fat (from olive oil, avocados, and certain nuts, for example) you may better guarantee better long-term cognitive function.
It appears that certain plant foods pack a particularly powerful punch and should become a dietary staple: Dr. Greger proposes that berries and dark leafy greens may be “the brain foods of the fruit and vegetable kingdom.”
Blueberries are a simple, delicious, and easily accessible superfood, rich in flavonoids (a type of polyphenol), which have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Blueberry supplementation has been shown to increase cerebral blood flow as well as activation in brain areas associated with cognitive function in healthy older adults. Polyphenols have also been shown to increase neurogenesis - the body’s ability to repair and create new nerve cells. Curcurmin, a polyphenol found in turmeric, and resveratrol, found in grapes, cocoa, wine, and berry fruits, also show promise for promoting neurogenesis. Leafy greens are also an absolute must. Eating just one serving of dark leafy greens per day appears to slow cognitive decline with aging.
Other factors to check: Make sure you are getting sufficient B vitamins - especially B12 - if you eat a plant-based diet. Deficiencies of folate (B9) and of B12 are both associated with cognitive impairment. Similarly, omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseed, and their respective oils, are necessary to the structure and function of the brain and should be emphasized in a healthy brain-boosting diet. Omega-3 supplementation only seems to be helpful for executive function, however, among people who have low baseline DHA levels.
Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s typically manifest in older populations, but the asymptomatic period (before clinical symptoms appear) can span decades. Therefore, choosing a whole foods, Mediterranean-inspired, plant-forward diet rich in berries, greens, and healthy fats is a wise investment in your brain health. We can’t take our memory, attention, focus and executive function for granted. What you eat makes a measurable difference in your cognitive performance - not just today but for years to come.