When the topic of diet and health comes up, the focus is usually on either managing weight or health conditions, like diabetes and heart disease. What doesn't always top the list is brain health — but that appears to be changing.
More and more research suggests that maintaining a healthy diet is critical for brain health and, as it turns out, what is good for the heart may also be good for our brains. In particular, two recent reviews from National Center for Biotechnology Information and AARP evaluated existing research on the DASH and Mediterranean diets (both noted as being heart healthy), along with the MIND diet (Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), and found that all three of these eating patterns may contribute to good brain health.
Common across these diets is an emphasis on healthy fats, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables.
Foods that contain omega-3 fats, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in oily fish like salmon, trout and sardines, and monounsaturated fats — think olive oil and avocados — are thought to be beneficial to brain health. It is believed that the components in these types of fats may help to fight inflammation.
Our brains are about 60 percent fat. DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, is one of the most abundant forms of omega-3s in our brains and it plays a role in maintaining the membranes that surround neurons. The best food sources for DHA is oily fish, and while omega-3 fats can be found in plant foods (such as certain nuts and seeds), the research in support of brain function is not as strong from these sources.
Other fat sources, such as olive oil and nuts, contain polyphenols that may help improve blood flow to the brain and improve growth of nervous tissue. In particular, a compound in extra virgin olive oil, oleic acid, has been associated with lower levels of inflammation.
Fruits and vegetables
We all know eating more fruits and vegetables is good for our health — and our brains are no exception. All three of the diets, DASH, Mediterranean and the MIND diet, emphasize plant-based foods. The MIND diet in particular recommends eating at least six servings of leafy greens a week, at least one other vegetable daily and berries two or more times per week. Leafy greens contain compounds such as folate, vitamin K and E, and carotenoids that may protect the brain from cognitive decline, according to a study in neurology, from the National Institute of Health.
A nurses' health study from the same source also observed potentially protective effects on cognition with higher intake of blueberries and strawberries, which may be attributed to the high amounts of flavonoids, especially anthocyanins, that are found in these berries.
Foods to minimize
In addition to highlighting foods with potential beneficial effects, the researchers also noted foods that should be avoided or eaten less often, which include saturated and trans fats; highly processed, fried and refined foods; and excess sugar, salt and alcohol.
While the research in this area is compelling, it's important to note that this is a growing field of study and more research is needed to understand exactly how diet impacts our brains.
In the meantime, remember there is no single food that is the key to unlocking good health, brain or otherwise. Rather, following a healthy well-balanced diet that optimizes overall health is likely good for the brain as well. And remember, if you have an existing health condition, it is always recommended that you consult with your physician or healthcare practitioner before making changes to your diet or activity levels.
Constance Roark is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the president and founder of CMR Solutions. Visit cmrsolutionsllc.com.