We all understand that our diets affect our waistlines and energy levels, and that proper nutrition is crucial for staying fit and active as we age. But do you know the foods you eat can affect your memory, cognitive abilities and even your susceptibility to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia?
A host of studies has shown that our diets have profound effects on the health of our brains. From memory to mood to the ability to focus and complete tasks, almost everything we do is affected by the foods we eat. If you knew how you could boost your brain power or keep dementia at bay by changing your diet, wouldn’t you? Following are a few specific ways nutrition affects your brain, along with some tips for eating for brain health.
Alertness and Focus
Just like your muscles, your brain needs a steady supply of glucose (sugar) to work properly. You’ve probably noticed how you feel tired, fatigued and weak when you don’t eat enough. Without an adequate supply of food — carbohydrates in particular — your brain can’t function, either. Our appetites often decline as we age, but simply sticking to a regular schedule of well-balanced meals can help keep you more alert.
Your brain needs a steady supply of oxygen more than any other organ does. For adequate oxygen delivery, however, your blood cells need plenty of iron. Iron can be obtained from a wide variety of plant and animal foods, but the type found in meat is most readily absorbed by the body.
In addition to sugars and iron, your brain needs vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients to store and recall memories. You may think the best way to cover your bases is to take a multivitamin, but whole foods provide far greater absorption and a wider range of essential nutrients.
By eating different fresh fruits and vegetables, you can improve your memory. A B vitamin called folic acid is particularly important, and it’s found in large amounts in peas, spinach, broccoli, beets and oranges.
Glucose, oxygen, vitamins and minerals are all essential to healthy brain function, but consuming them won’t help if your brain isn’t receiving adequate blood flow. In fact, a lack of blood flow can cause a stroke. Fortunately, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and other brain-boosting foods will help reduce the buildup of arterial plaque.
Research suggests that Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia — the two most common forms of dementia in the United States — may be exacerbated by the same dietary choices that cause high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity. Just as fatty, cholesterol-rich foods can cause the buildup of plaque in the arteries, they may also contribute to the formation of plaque around brain cells.
Have you noticed how lethargy, a foggy memory and poor focus tend to coincide with a sour mood? Most of the dietary habits that cause brain fog also contribute to feelings of anger and discontent. Highs and lows in blood sugar are especially notorious for causing mood swings, but a steady supply of nutrients will keep you happy, upbeat and better able to handle life’s stressors.
When it comes to eating for brain health, there are no secrets or tricks — just healthy habits that will keep you focused and energetic day after day. The most important elements of a brain-boosting diet include:
- Regular meals. Keep blood sugar swings at bay by eating five or six evenly spaced meals and snacks throughout the day. Each meal should contain lean protein, healthy fats, fresh produce and complex carbohydrates.
- Adequate protein. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of every cell in your body, and it can boost your mood by elevating levels of serotonin and dopamine. Quality sources include eggs, dairy, poultry, red meat, fish, nuts and legumes.
- Whole grains. Your brain needs carbs, but refined flour and sugar digest too quickly, causing constant highs and lows. Focus on whole wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice and other whole grains, as well as potatoes and sweet potatoes.
- Variety. It’s easy to fall into a routine with your diet, but a healthy brain needs a large number of nutrients you can only get from a variety of foods. Make cooking your own meals a regular part of your life, and buy a few different fruits, vegetables and protein sources every time you shop.
Once you’ve integrated those habits into your life, you may want to start searching for specific foods to boost your brain power and stave off dementia. Here are a few of the best brain foods for older adults:
- Avocados, nuts and other sources of monounsaturated fat
- Antioxidant-rich produce, including berries, beets and beans
- Immune boosting foods: bone broth, sauerkraut and yogurt
- Anti-inflammatory foods such as tomatoes, olive oil and green leafy vegetables
Overall, diet and nutrition have a significant impact on your brain health. By following the recommendations listed above, you can help stave off disease and keep your brain healthy and strong.
Interested in learning more ways to stay healthy and energized well into retirement? Get a copy of our free online resource, The Vitality Guide.
(Originally published Apr. 19, 2017; last updated Jan. 6, 2019.)