They say, “You are what you eat.” And the food we incorporate into our diets does have a profound impact on our bodies. But can certain foods also boost the health of our minds?
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Turns out, certain foods can indeed help with brain functions such as memory and concentration.
“Different diets have been suggested over the years for optimal brain health and we have strong evidence for some,” says memory and brain health specialist Babak Tousi, MD.
Especially as we age, our brains go through certain changes. One thing that happens, Dr. Tousi notes, is the white matter changes in our brains, which can affect the way our brains communicate information to the rest of our bodies. Additionally, there’s a decrease in gray matter in our brains — the part of your brain that controls processing and thinking.
Fortunately, various diets and foods have been found to help slow down degeneration of the brain and decrease the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Can certain diets help with brain health?
Some diets have been shown to provide a variety of health benefits. The Mediterranean diet — which focuses on foods like vegetables, whole grains and olive oil — is known for being heart-healthy. But it can also be good for your brain, by minimizing white and gray matter changes.
“It has been found that the Mediterranean diet also decreases white matter changes,” says Dr. Tousi. “It increased thickness in gray parts of the brain, we call it the cortex of the brain where the thinking process is.”
Another frequently recommended diet, the MIND diet is a mix of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, which was developed to lower blood pressure. The MIND diet focuses on brain-boosting foods like fish and berries, while nixing foods like red meat, fried foods, sweets and fast food.
Cutting out pro-inflammatory and high-sugar foods can boost your brain and also may help prevent conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“Similar to the Mediterranean Diet, the MIND diet can increase your brain’s total volume,” says Dr. Tousi.
If you’re not ready to commit to a whole new diet, incorporating certain foods into your meals can still have a lot of benefits.
Here are some foods that will make your brain smile:
Turns out, the “chicken of the sea” is more than a healthy meat alternative — it also serves as good brain fuel. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for learning and memory.
“There is strong evidence that fish can help decrease degeneration of the brain,” says Dr. Tousi. “It may also help with memory decline in the elderly.”
As you age, your brain’s gray matter — which helps with memory processing — naturally decreases. The good news? Omega-3 fatty acids in fish can actually help increase your brain’s gray matter volume.
Some examples of fish and seafood products to add to your diet include:
“Add color to your plate,” recommends Dr. Tousi. Making sure your meals have a mix of different fruits and vegetables is a good way to get a balance of nutrition for your body and brain. Berries are on the list of recommended fruits to add to your diet under the MIND diet due to their source of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Various studies have shown that berry fruits can have a positive impact on neurodegenerative diseases due to aging. While more research still needs to be done, a 2014 study shows that eating berries can improve memory. A bowl of strawberries never sounded sweeter!
Some delicious berries to add to your diet include:
Another food swap that could have a positive impact on brain health is switching out refined carbohydrates with whole grains. Along with other health benefits, whole grains can have a positive impact on brain health because of the way they’re processed in your body.
Unlike the refined carbs in white bread, whole grains are complex carbohydrates that break down more slowly in your body and their sugars are released gradually, which is a good thing.
“As soon as you eat white bread, it breaks down quickly into sugar,” explains Dr. Tousi. “Whole-grain bread does not. Try to avoid foods that release sugar very quickly into your body. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains are broken down more slowly, so sugar is released gradually, allowing your body to function more efficiently.”
Dr. Tousi points out that a high sugar intake is also linked with an accelerating decline in brain function. Even something as healthy sounding as pre-packaged instant oatmeal isn’t as beneficial to your health as the steel-cut oat version.
Try swapping out your simple carbs with whole-grain substitutions such as:
Overall, being mindful of what you eat can have many health benefits for your whole body — including your brain and memory. Even small changes can make a big difference. Explore new diets or switch out certain foods in your daily meals to deliver some brain-boosting goodness.