Chances are, you purposely ate something today that you know is heart-healthy, but did you think about consuming some foods that are good for your brain? Probably not. Only relatively recently have researchers begun to study the link between diet and cognitive function, and the findings are promising.
“You can’t control your genes, which are mostly responsible for any decline in brain function as we age, but with diet, there’s the potential to do something,” says Lon S. Schneider, M.D., a professor of psychiatry, neurology, and gerontology at the University of Southern California.
But it takes more than eating familiar brain foods such as fish or blueberries once in a while. “It’s what we eat as a whole,” says Martha Clare Morris, Sc.D., director of nutrition and nutritional epidemiology at the Rush University Medical Center. Research by Morris and her colleagues shows that following a diet that includes the right brain foods in the right combination can take years off your brain.
Introducing the MIND diet
The MIND diet is a hybrid of the heart-healthy Mediterranean and the blood-pressure-lowering DASH diets. (MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.) It limits red meat, butter and stick margarine, pastries and sweets, fried and fast food, and cheese. But a few foods play starring roles.
The Rush team created the plan after reviewing the evidence from human and animal studies on diet and brain health, and singled out foods that appeared to have brain-protecting effects. Then they studied the diets of almost 1,000 elderly adults, who were followed for an average of 4½ years. People whose diets were most strongly in line with the MIND diet had brains that functioned as if they were 7½ years younger than those whose diets least resembled this eating style. A follow-up study showed that they also cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in half. People who followed the plan only some of the time still had a 35 percent lower risk. Working these brain foods into your diet can help keep your mind sharp and your entire body healthy.
1. Vegetables/Leafy Greens
It’s not yet clear how greens improve brain health, but it may be because of their high levels of vitamin K, folate (a B vitamin), and the antioxidants beta carotene and lutein. People who had one to two servings of greens per day, such as collards, kale, and spinach, for about five years had the cognitive abilities of someone 11 years younger, according to another study from Rush University. All types of lettuce and greens count, but darker greens have more nutrients.
Eat at least one cup raw or ½ cup cooked greens and ½ cup of other cooked vegetables per day.
How to use them: Mix a handful of baby spinach or kale into an almost-ready pasta dish or soup, the heat will wilt the greens.
The brains of older women who ate five servings of nuts per week functioned similarly to those of women 2 years younger, according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging. A small study found that older men and women who ate just one Brazil nut daily for six months experienced increases in blood selenium levels as well as better verbal abilities and spatial skills. Brazil nuts contain selenium, a mineral that helps boost the activity of antioxidants that may protect the brain from damage. One nut supplies all of the selenium you need in a day.
Eat at least five 1-ounce servings per week
How to use them: Toss a handful of the nuts (or a chopped Brazil nut) on your salad instead of croutons for a nutrient-packed crunch. Stash 100-calorie snack packs in your bag or desk for the midday munchies.
According to the MIND research, berries are the only fruit that benefit the brain. Women ages 70 and older who ate blueberries at least once per week or strawberries twice per week or more had a brain age as much as 2½ years younger than those who ate the berries less than once per month, according to a Harvard study that followed more than 16,000 women for almost 20 years. One animal study suggests that the antioxidants in berries can help activate the brain’s “housekeeper” mechanism, which cleans out parts of cells that become damaged. Frozen berries are just as nutritious as fresh and can cost half as much.
Eat at least one cup twice per week
How to use them: Toss frozen berries into a smoothie or heat them in a saucepan and use as a topping for oatmeal.
Eating black beans, kidney beans, lentils, white beans, and others provides a hearty dose of folate, a B vitamin that may play a role in preventing dementia later in life, according to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Canned beans are fine; just rinse them before using to remove some of the sodium.
Eat at least ½ cup cooked, four times per week.
How to use them: Cook white beans with rosemary and garlic, then drizzle them with olive oil for a rich but healthy side dish. Or snack on hummus or try one of the new bean-based pastas on the market.
Both are much lower in saturated fat than red meat. And the omega 3 fats in fish may improve learning and memory by increasing the brain’s ability to send and receive messages. Older adults without dementia who ate 3 to 5 ounces of fish weekly for the past year experienced less brain shrinkage, a common occurrence with Alzheimer’s disease, compared with people who hardly ever ate fish.
“In general, the more fish, the better,” says Yian Gu, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University. She cautions, however, that people should weigh the possible benefits of fish consumption against the risks of mercury and other toxins that fish may contain. Low-mercury options include haddock, sardines, tilapia, and wild salmon.
Eat at least 3 ounces of fish and 6 ounces of poultry per week (not fried).
How to use them: Replace tuna with canned salmon (it’s often wild) for salads or make salmon burgers. Roll chopped chicken breast into a whole-wheat wrap with ¼ cup avocado, ½ cup shredded lettuce, and 2 tablespoons of salsa.
6. Olive Oil
The phenolic compounds in extra-virgin olive oil may help prevent toxic protein deposits that can lead to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research from the University of Florence. Olive oil may also help reduce inflammation and improve blood-vessel function, two factors that can benefit the brain, according to a review of 30 studies published in the journal Nutrients.
Recommended intake: Daily
How to use it: Cook with it and use it on salads and vegetables.
7. Whole Grains
Eat at least ½ cup cooked grains or a slice of whole-grain bread three times per day.
How to use them: Start the morning with a bowl of oatmeal. For lunch or dinner, toss wheat berries with chopped vegetables, beans, olive oil, and vinegar for an alternative to pasta salad.
Moderate wine drinking is linked to better brain health, but beware of a cup that runneth over. Adults who averaged more than 12 grams of alcohol per day (about the amount in 4 ounces of wine) had an increased risk of developing dementia, according to a study from the University of South Florida. If you’re at a high risk for cancer, ask your doctor how much you should drink.
Recommended intake: One glass per day.
A Day on the MIND Diet
A day’s worth of meals focused on brain foods looks a lot like a Mediterranean heart-health plan. There are lots of veggies, nuts, whole grains, and olive oil; some beans, fish, and poultry; and a daily glass of wine. What you won’t see much of is red meat, sweets, or fried and fast foods. Remember: Eating this way even some of the time has been linked to brain benefits.
Breakfast: 1 cup of oatmeal prepared with water, topped with ½ cup blueberries and 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts. Coffee with milk, no sugar.
Snack: 1 apple and 1 ounce of almonds.
Lunch: A salad of 3 cups of baby spinach with ¼ cup each of chopped cucumber, tomato, and bell pepper; ¼ cup quinoa; ⅓ cup chickpeas; 3 ounces sliced chicken; 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil; and 1 tablespoon vinegar.
Dinner: Grilled tilapia with olive oil and lemon, ½ cup of farro, 1 cup of string beans sautéed in garlic and olive oil, one glass of pinot noir.
Dessert: 1 cup sliced strawberries drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
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