This Is the #1 Best Food for Brain Health, According to a Neurologist and Dietitian
It's the perfect oatmeal topper.
As we age, it gets increasingly important to prioritize brain health. The number of people in the U.S. who are living with dementia is on the rise, partially because people are living longer. In the U.S., 22 percent of adults ages 85 to 89 have dementia and 33 percent of adults ages 90 or older have been diagnosed.
While we can’t control the fate of our health entirely, scientific studies do show that certain foods are linked to benefitting brain health. (The inverse is true too; certain foods have been linked to cognitive decline and a higher risk for dementia.) According to numerous scientific studies, the best way to eat with brain health in mind is to eat a plant-forward diet high in leafy greens, other vegetables, nuts and seeds, berries, beans and legumes, whole grains, fish, poultry and olive oil.
If that sounds pretty different from the way you currently eat, making small, incremental changes to your diet may be more beneficial than trying to change everything all at once. Not sure where to start? Neurologist Dr. Shae Datta, MD, who is co-director of NYU Langone's Concussion Center, says there’s one food for brain health she would recommend more than any other: walnuts.
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Why Are Walnuts So Good for Brain Health?
“Walnuts offer twice as many antioxidants as compared to other nuts,” Dr. Datta says as to why they’re her favorite brain food. In fact, she points out that they’re even shaped like the brain a little bit. Dr. Datta says that besides being high in antioxidants, walnuts are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid.
Dr. Datta says that antioxidants and ALA omega-3 fatty acids are both linked to counteracting inflammation and oxidative stress, which in turn helps prevent cognitive decline. Registered dietitian, Julie Andrews, RDN, who wrote The Mind Diet Plan and Cookbook: Recipes and Lifestyle Guidelines to Help Prevent Alzheimer’s, also says that walnuts are beneficial for brain health for this reason. “Walnuts are rich in vitamin E, B vitamins and omega 3s, all of which studies show are good for our brain health because of their metabolic functions and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” she says.
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How often should you eat walnuts to truly support your brain? Andrews says that the MIND diet (which is partially based on the Mediterranean diet and was created specifically to prevent or slow cognitive decline), calls for eating five, one-ounce servings of nuts per week. “Walnuts are especially beneficial because of their omega-3 and antioxidant content, making them one of the best nut choices to opt for,” she says.
There’s certainly no shortage of ways to integrate walnuts into your diet. While they can be enjoyed as is, Andrews says they can also provide nuttiness and crunch to salads, curries, stir-fries and lettuce wraps, as well as add texture to desserts. “You can toss them on yogurt or a fruit parfait for an easy boost of nutrition,” she says. Andrews adds that walnut flour can be used as the base for baked goods, such as cakes, muffins and breads.
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What If I’m Allergic to Nuts?
As beneficial as walnuts are for brain health, not everyone likes them and some people are allergic. If this is the case for you, don’t sweat it; there are plenty of other brain-healthy foods you can focus on instead, such as seeds and berries.
Whether you go all in on walnuts or opt for nuts or berries instead, Andrews says it’s important to eat a wide range of nutrient-rich foods. Topping your oatmeal with walnuts in the morning won’t make up for eating nutrient-void foods the rest of the day. “The key is to include a wide range of nutrient-dense foods with a focus on those containing vitamin E, B vitamins, omega-3s, and flavonoids,” Andrews says. If you’re unfamiliar with flavonoids, Andrews explains that they are a natural compound of phytochemicals found in plant foods that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This includes berries, teas, cocoa, soybeans, legumes, some fruits, vegetables and herbs.
It bears repeating that there is no sure way to prevent dementia. But you can proactively take steps to support your brain health through what you eat every day. Now that you know exactly how, go, well, nuts!
Next up, check out these 23 ways to keep your mind sharp at any age.
Dr. Shae Datta, MD, neurologist and co-director of NYU Langone's Concussion Center
Julie Andrews, RDN, registered dietitian and author of The Mind Diet Plan and Cookbook: Recipes and Lifestyle Guidelines to Help Prevent Alzheimer’s, among other books