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Man in kitchen chopping fruits, adopting healthy eating habits to help decrease his likelihood of experiencing memory decline.
Man in kitchen chopping fruits, adopting healthy eating habits to help decrease his likelihood of experiencing memory decline.

The power of food for your brain

Personal health · Mar 10, 2022

Everyone has experienced moments of forgetfulness or a brief lapse of memory, whether periodic or frequent. And while a decline in memory is accepted as normal or maybe even expected with age, it can be a frustrating process. We have always known that genetics plays a role in this memory loss, specifically in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. However, recently a number of lifestyle factors, including diet have been found to influence the extent or likelihood of experiencing memory decline. Certain foods in particular are becoming well known for their ability to even help boost our memory performance.

Can we eat for brain health?

According to the National Institute of Aging our risk for cognitive decline is dependent on an interplay between our DNA and lifestyle factors including diet, physical activity, smoking, chemical/environmental exposure and sleep quality. These factors influence oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, which is thought to impact the extent of cognitive decline.1

The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) was developed over a decade ago by Martha Clare Morris. The MIND diet is designed to help prevent dementia and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It combines the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) to create a dietary pattern that focuses specifically on brain health.

Researchers studied the relationship between eating patterns and Alzheimer’s in 923 retired adults in Chicago over an average of 4.5 years. The scientists rated participants’ diets based on how closely they adhered to the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet (a healthy diet used to help treat hypertension that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy and limited sweets and salt) and the MIND diet2. The MIND diet emphasizes foods associated with brain health, including whole grains, leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, and fish.

Those most closely following the Mediterranean diet were 54% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia (more than any other diet group). Comparatively, those most closely following the DASH diet were 39% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia. The group most closely following the MIND diet (which shares many similarities with the Mediterranean diet) was 53% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia than the group with the lowest MIND diet scores, and even those moderately following the MIND diet were at a 35% lower risk.  As well, the MIND diet still provides the cardiovascular benefits — lowering blood pressure and the chances for heart attack or stroke — that popularized the Mediterranean and DASH diets.2

Eating for our brain

Our brain has a big appetite and consumes some of our daily calories each day, however only certain foods can help improve our cognitive performance and decrease our risk of memory decline. The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage because of its high metabolic load and abundance of oxidizable materials. Ensuring that we provide the body with abundant antioxidants can maintain the balance and decrease the risk of oxidation in the brain, which leads to inflammation.

Fueling your brain step-by-step 

Step 1: Clean up your diet - Remove foods that are contributing to inflammation (thereby impacting cognitive function). This includes refined and processed foods – packaged foods, fast foods, baked goods, white flours, sugar, sugary beverages and foods rich in saturated and/or trans fats. These types of foods provide little benefit to the health of the body and can impair blood sugars and increase inflammation.

Step 2: Hydrate – The brain requires an adequate amount of hydration in order to function optimally. When the brain cells do not receive sufficient hydration, they cannot function efficiently, which can lead to difficulty keeping our attention, impaired short-term memory and impaired recall of long-term memory.

Step 3: Add whole foods

  • Eat lots of vegetables and fruit. This includes antioxidant rich vegetables and fruit that can be identified by their deep, dark or vibrant colour. For example, kale, broccoli and berries.

  • Change the way you think about meat. If you eat meat, have smaller amounts – small strips of sirloin in a vegetable stir fry. 

  • Enjoy some dairy products. Eat Greek or plain yogurt, and try smaller amounts of cheese.

  • Eat fish/seafood twice a week. Fish such as herring, salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and shellfish including mussels, oysters, and clams have similar benefits for brain and heart health.

  • Cook a vegetarian meal one night a week. Build meals around legumes,, whole grains, and vegetables, and heighten the flavor with fragrant herbs and spices. 

  • Use good fats. Include sources of healthy fats in daily meals, especially extra-virgin olive oil, nuts/seeds, fish, olives, and avocados.

  • Switch to whole grains. Whole grains are naturally rich in many important nutrients; their extra fiber helps keep you satisfied for hours. Cook traditional Mediterranean grains like bulgur, barley, farro and brown, black or red rice, and favour products made with whole grain flour.

  • For dessert, eat fresh fruit. Choose from a wide range of delicious fresh fruits — from fresh figs and oranges to pomegranates, grapes and apples.

The final word on nutrition and brain health continues to evolve.  There is enough research to embrace the dietary patterns recommended in the MIND diet. Not only can they benefit the brain, but it can support overall health as well.


Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Cognitive health and older adults. National Institute on Aging. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults

  2. Morris, M. C., Tangney, C. C., Wang, Y., Sacks, F. M., Bennett, D. A., & Aggarwal, N. T. (2015). MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer's Association, 11(9), 1007–1014. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009

Authored by:
Meghan Wilton
Registered Dietitian