Food for Thought: How to Eat for Brain Health
Like exercise, nutrition is an important component of maintaining your brain health. Studies show that following the right diet and eating the right foods can help improve your cognitive function.
While certain foods are commonly associated with a healthier brain, we know that a healthy dietary pattern including lots of fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains — the kind of foods that are part of a Mediterranean diet — can help keep your brain healthy and dementia at bay.
We don’t often think about food when it comes to brain health, but there’s a growing body of evidence connecting the diet we follow and our risk for things like dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease. That’s one of the reasons why nutrition is a key area of focus of the MDVIP Wellness Program, and in my practice, there’s an even greater emphasis when it comes to the brain.
While I provide my patients general nutritional guidance for a healthier brain, I also make specific dietary recommendations based on their medical history, current health status and current cognitive function. For example, if someone has high cholesterol, I suggest they avoid shellfish; if someone has diabetes, I will help moderate their fruit intake. Because we can spend time together during visits, I know their health conditions, allergies, vitamin deficiencies and medications that could affect nutrient absorption.
In general, I focus on two important areas with my patients: fatty acids and added sugars.
Brain Health and Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids
Evidence from blue zones – regions in the world characterized by populations with longevity and quality of life, including good cognitive function — is clear cut regarding omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. We know now the balance of omega 6 and omega 3 levels are important to brain health, specifically keeping the ratio of omega 6s to omega 3s as low as possible.
Studies show most people eating a Western diet have a 15 to 1 ratio or higher of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. A ratio of 4 to 1 or less is associated positive health outcomes for people with asthma and osteoarthritis and is linked to lower inflammation and reduced risk from certain cancers. So, most people need fewer omega 6s and more omega 3s.
Omega 6 fatty acids are found naturally in foods like tofu and sunflower seeds. It’s also commonly found in packaged and wrapped goods which often contain sunflower oil, soybean oil, safflower oil and vegetable oil. These substances can also be found in salad dressings and coffee creamer preparations.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in shellfish, nuts, flaxseed, spinach and avocados. Studies show that people who eat more foods with omega 3 tend do better in every aspect of health, including reducing their risk for dementia.
So how do you ensure you get the right amount of both?
- Eat more foods rich in omega 3s like fatty fish
- Consume less omega-6 rich vegetable oil (and the processed foods that contain them)
- Talk to your doctor about an omega-3 supplement
Avoid Added Sugars for Better Brain Health
Beyond fats, there is also a great deal of evidence that eating a diet high in added sugar can have a profound impact on your brain. The brain’s main source of energy is sugar, which it uses to function. But too much can be bad for the brain. Consuming simple carbs can cause your blood glucose levels to spike, and unhealthy blood sugar levels have been tied to insulin resistance in the brain, inflammation and decreased hippocampus size (a part of the brain that deals with memory).
Unfortunately, the average American consumes about 22 teaspoons a day of added sugar – largely through processed and prepared foods. A diet that is virtually absent of added sugars is beneficial no matter who the patient is. Eating a lower carbohydrate diet with minimal added sugars is good for general health and brain health because it helps lower inflammatory levels that aggravate many forms of illness. A low-carb diet specifically improves cognition in patients with poor glucose regulation. This is because impairments in glucose metabolism are strongly associated with brain atrophy and lower hippocampal volume — both of which are linked to cognitive decline.
When Eating Carbs, Focus Complex Carbs
The best way to keep your blood sugar levels consistent is to focus on fiber-rich vegetables and foods that do not spike your blood sugar. When you do eat carbs, make sure they’re complex carbohydrates. For example, substitute quinoa or other whole grains like barley, brown rice and oats for simple carbs like white rice and packaged breakfast cereals. When you eat healthy whole fruits (generally considered simple carbs), pair them with fat or protein — this approach can keep the glucose regulated in the body and the brain.
Other Tips for Brain-Friendly Eating
Beyond added sugars and fatty acids, I also encourage my patients to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet. Areas in the Mediterranean are considered Blue Zones and the diet, rich in antioxidants and monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, is linked to improved brain health and a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia. It’s also generally well-received.
I also recommend my patients incorporate more polyphenol-rich foods in their diet. Polyphenols, which are found in red wine, dark chocolate, berries, coffee, tea, nuts, fruits and vegetables, are packed with antioxidants. Blueberries, oranges and broccoli, as well as coffee and tea (in moderation) can help your brain, and nuts and eggs can support memory and brain development.
I also discuss gut health with my patients. While it may sound strange to connect our belly with our brain, the gut biome, which helps with digestions, affects the brain. There are simple actions we can take to help keep gut biome at the optimal level, including eating plenty of fiber, adding prebiotics to the diet and avoiding artificial sweeteners.
Maintaining your brain health is an important part of maintaining your overall health. Whether you are trying to prevent cognitive decline or better manage a known impairment, nutrition plays a key role. And while there are proven dietary recommendations linked to brain health maintenance and improvement, one size does not fit all. The ability to know my patients head to toe, literally, helps us stay ahead of their physical and emotional health and makes the sensitive topic of brain health much easier to discuss.
Dr. Lara Hitchcock is a board-certified family medicine physician in Orlando, Florida with special interests in brain health and women’s health. She earned her medical degree at the renowned Mayo Clinic Medical School and received her undergraduate degree in neurobiology at University of Florida. She is currently accepting a limited number of patients.