Your Brain Health Nutrition Guide: What You Should Know

by Tori Schmitt, MS, RDN, LD

Your brain: it helps command everything you do. It powers digestion, circulation, breathing and thinking. It controls your body movements and emotions. Parts of your brain and nervous system help release chemical messengers that give you signals that it is time to eat, that you are thirsty, that you are full or that your body should start digesting the food it has just eaten.

It is understood that you should provide your brain with the nutrients it needs to function optimally. Though carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for the brain, we know that the brain needs several other nutrients to support its health. So, what are those nutrients and foods that you should have, and others you want to steer clear from? This Brain Health Nutrition Guide gives you six helpful tips for keeping your brain in gear.

  1. Go Nuts for Healthy Food
    Eat your nuts and olives – and your vegetables, too! Why? An eating pattern that focuses on antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods may provide protection from cognitive decline. Recent research demonstrates that nuts and olive oil, when paired with a Mediterranean-style diet (rich in green leafy vegetables, fish, whole grains, legumes, and vegetables) may help improve cognitive function.1 Incorporate nuts like walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, peanuts, almonds, and their nut butters into your eating plan more often.
  1. Berries for Better Brain Health
    Berries, specifically strawberries and blueberries, may support brain health while reducing the speed of cognitive decline in older adults.2-3 Berries contain flavonoids, specifically anthocyanidins, which appear to confer the brain-health benefits – so much benefit that women who eat more berries appear to delay cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years! Pop your berries in a smoothie, add them overtop a salad, or serve them fresh with a handful of nuts. And, consider choosing a balanced variety of other flavonoid-rich foods, too, like apples, oranges, onions, tea and red wine (in moderation, of course).3
  1. Catch of the Day: Omega-3s
    About 60 percent of the brain is made up of essential omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, which supports brain health and reaction time in young adults.4-5 Since it’s so important, it makes sense to consume enough DHA through what you eat. Find brain-healthy DHA in lower-mercury fish like anchovies, sardines, salmon, and herring, as well as in algal-based DHA supplements and fortified foods.
  1. Get Privy with Probiotics
    Can healthy gut bacteria (i.e. probiotics) also support the health of your brain? Recent research seems to point to “yes,” and the reason lies within the gut-brain axis. You see, your digestive tract is full of neurons (nerve cells) that send signals to and from your brain, so maintaining a healthy digestive system is important for preserving healthy nervous system functions. Though more research is needed, in animal studies, those supplemented with probiotics tended to show less anxious behavior, a decrease in depressive behaviors, and benefits to memory performance.6 What can you do? Choose cultured and fermented foods that offer probiotics, like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, and yogurt, and consider a quality probiotic supplement, if necessary.
  1. Consider What Else You May Be Eating
    Do you tote around plastic water bottles, microwave food in plastic containers or use canned foods? Be careful, as some of these items may contain bisphenol A (or BPA), which may have the potential to disrupt normal brain development in the prenatal period and lead to long-lasting learning impairments.7 To stay away from BPA, choose glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers, straws and water bottles, reduce the amount of food you eat that is packaged in BPA-lined cans, and keep plastics out of the microwave, dishwasher, freezer and sun.
  1. Cut Back on Added Sugar and Fructose
    From your baked goods to fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, and from your soft drinks to ketchup, added sugar and fructose find its way into not only your treat foods, but your everyday foods, too. Why is this a concern? Along with its potential role in contributing to obesity and insulin resistance, fructose – especially when eaten alongside a diet that is insufficient in omega-3s – may impair cognitive function.8 More is yet to be learned about this association, so for now, be aware of how much added sugar you eat in a day, and strive to get less than 5 percent of your total energy from sugar per day (about 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons), as recommended by the World Health Organization for better overall health.

Need some brain boosting meal ideas? How about plain yogurt with berries and walnuts for breakfast, an avocado with sauerkraut for lunch, or a green salad with salmon, strawberries and pistachios for dinner? Begin to combine these foods with an eating pattern full of vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains and fatty fish as you strive for improved health.

References

  1. Valls-Pedret C, Sala-Vila A, Serra-Mir M, Corella D, de la Torre R, Martínez-González MÁ, Martínez-Lapiscina EH, Fitó M, Pérez-Heras A, Salas-Salvadó J, Estruch R, Ros E. Mediterranean Diet and Age-Related Cognitive DeclineA Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(7):1094-1103. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.1668
  1. Krikorian, R., Shidler, M.D., Nash, T.A., et al. Blueberry Supplementation Improves Memory in Older Adults. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry. 2010;58(7):3996-4000. doi:10.1021/jf9029332.
  1. Devore EE, Kang JH, Breteler MMB, Grodstein F. Dietary intake of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Annals of neurology. 2012;72(1):135-143. doi:10.1002/ana.23594.
  1. Sinn N, Milte C, Howe PRC. Oiling the Brain: A Review of Randomized Controlled Trials of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Psychopathology across the Lifespan. Nutrients. 2010;2(2):128-170. doi:10.3390/nu2020128.
  1. Stonehouse, W, Conolon, CA, Podd, J, Hill JR, Minihane, AM, Haskell, C, Kennedy, D. DHA supplementation improved both memory and reaction time in healthy young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 May; 97(5): 1134-43. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.053371.
  1. Wang H, Lee I-S, Braun C, Enck P. Effect of Probiotics on Central Nervous System Functions in Animals and Humans: A Systematic Review. Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility. 2016;22(4):589-605. doi:10.5056/jnm16018.
  1. Negri-Cesi P. Bisphenol A Interaction With Brain Development and Functions. Dose-Response. 2015;13(2):1559325815590394. doi:10.1177/1559325815590394.
  1. Lakhan SE, Kirchgessner A. The emerging role of dietary fructose in obesity and cognitive decline. Nutrition Journal. 2013;12:114. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-114.

4 Steps to Better Brain Health

The brain is much like a newborn baby. It is fragile and needs all of the proper care and nutrition to help it grow into a strong organ to carry us throughout our lifespan. We are sharing four important steps to better brain health that you can start today.

No. 1: Volunteer with today’s youth – A science-based initiative through Johns Hopkins University and AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), called Experience Corps, found that older adults who volunteer in urban schools improved the educational experience of children AND the older volunteers also experienced meaningful improvements in their own mental and physical health. Why? Because they were increasing their daily socialization and they had a reason to get moving early in the day – all things the brain loves.

No. 2: Eat the catch of the day – Well, only if the catch of the day is a fatty fish high in DHA omega-3. This specific omega-3 makes up about 30 percent of the structural fats in the grey matter of the brain. What’s more, it is responsible for 97 percent of the total omega-3s in the brain. If salmon, tuna, mackerel or herring do not grace your table at least twice a week, you should talk with your doctor about taking a DHA omega-3 supplement. It will help to fill in the gaps when fatty fish is not the catch of the day.

No. 3: Drink to better brain health – In this case, we are not talking about raising a glass of bubbly or toasting with your favorite ale. We are talking about hydration in the form of good old-fashioned H2O. Your body needs to stay hydrated to function properly and this includes your brain.

Memory and fitness expert, Nelson Dellis, shares his tips for staying hydrated throughout the day.

No. 4: Put one foot in front of the other – That’s right, get moving for better brain health. According to research published in the Journal of Aging Research, regular aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping and sweat oozing from your glands) may increase the size of the hippocampus in the brain. The researchers found that resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results.

Debunking Common Nutrition Myths

By: Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.

Diet dogma has a life of its own. Even when science reveals the truth behind a diet fad or web rumor, the myth lingers on. Here are a few mistaken identities in the nutrition arena.

Myth No. 1: Vitamin supplements are a waste of time.

Fact: Every so often the news reports on a study that found supplements are unnecessary. Before you toss your vitamins, read on.

If a study came out finding that people who drank water had no lower risk for cancer, would you stop drinking water? If another study reported that people who meet their recommendation for protein were at no lower risk for heart disease than people who ate too little protein, would you eliminate protein from your diet? Probably not. Both water and protein are essential nutrients.

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients, too. The human body can’t make them, yet it needs them to survive and thrive. These essential nutrients must come from the diet on a regular basis and in amounts known to ensure life, as well as health. A lack of even one vitamin or mineral over time can have devastating consequences, in many cases even death.

Just because you’re not on your deathbed, is not a sign you are optimally nourished. National nutrition surveys spanning decades of research repeatedly find that many Americans do not meet the basic requirements for certain vitamins and/or minerals. One study found that 99 out of every 100 Americans don’t meet even minimum standards of a balanced diet. The USDA’s Healthy Eating Index, a tool to assess Americans’ eating habits, rating them on a scale of 0 to 100, consistently finds that most Americans score below or in the 60s, equivalent to an “F” or a “D” ranking on nutrition. Why not fill in the gaps with a moderate-dose, well-balanced multi-vitamin supplement on the days when you don’t eat perfectly? There is no harm in taking a moderate-dose multi-vitamin and mineral, in fact, people who supplement tend to be healthier. Supplementing responsibly is one of the lowest cost preventive measures you can adopt. (11,12,23)

Of course, popping a pill is not license to eat junk. That’s why they are called supplements, not substitutes for an excellent diet. Even the most staunch supporters of supplements agree that no pill can replace a healthy diet and lifestyle. It is one factor in a pattern of living that helps prevent disease and prolong the healthy years. (13-15)

Myth No. 2: Carbs are fattening.

Fact: Just the opposite. Starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn, and 100% whole grains are quality carbs that are the mainstay of all diets worldwide, since they supply glucose, the main fuel for everything from muscles to brain. They also are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. For example, the fiber in oats (called beta glucan) helps to lower blood sugar and cholesterol, thus playing an important role in the management of diabetes and heart disease. That fiber also fills you up without filling you out, so is a great addition to any weight-loss diet. But, avoid their refined counterparts, such as white bread, and their high-fat friends, such as butter, cream cheese, and sour cream, since ounce for ounce these add-ons contain more than twice the calories. For example, a generous smear of butter has more calories than a slice of bread (108 versus 61 calories), while a plain potato has only 88 calories compared to the same potato French-fried, which packs more than four times the calories (354 calories). (25,26)

Myth No. 3: Women naturally gain weight after menopause.

Fact: Many women believe that weight gain is part of “the change.” But numerous studies, including one from Michigan State University, offer some surprising results. In this study of 28 postmenopausal women, menopause by itself was not the reason for weight gain. It was the level of physical activity that had the biggest impact on body weight – older women who were vigorously active maintained their girlish figures. (1-3)

Myth No. 4: Drinking a glass of water before a meal helps curb appetite.

Fact: Water does curb appetite, but mostly when it is incorporated into food, not gulped from a glass. Several studies from Pennsylvania State University found that only water in soups, thick beverages like tomato juice, and other liquid foods fills us up. In one study, women were given a snack of chicken rice casserole with a glass of water or a chicken rice soup that contained the same amount of water as broth. Results showed that the soup was more filling even though it contained 27% fewer calories than the casserole. The reason – water bound to food is filling, while a glass of water is not, is unclear, but it could be that the bound water slows digestion, whereas a glass of water just passes right through. (4)

Myth No. 5: Shellfish is high in cholesterol.

Fact: Yes, shrimp is high in cholesterol, containing more than a third of your daily quota or 130 milligrams in a 3-ounce serving. But, shrimp is low in fat and contains a smidgeon of heart healthy omega-3s, which might explain why a study from the University of Southern California found that eating shellfish, like shrimp, every week reduced heart attack risk by 59 percent. Besides, most of the cholesterol in your blood is made in the body from saturated fats consumed in the diet, and shrimp is very low in that artery-clogging fat. The bottom line: shrimp is a healthy addition to your diet, just don’t batter or fry it! (5)

Selected references

Landmark Study Supports Supplementation for Heart Health

By: Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.

Nutrition science has finally caught up with common sense. In a landmark study from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, the researchers conclude that men who supplement with a multivitamin have a significantly lower risk for serious heart disease issues.
What makes this study different from others? In contrast to previous studies on relatively few subjects followed for a few years, the Harvard study was a long-term investigation on a large group of men (18,530 to be exact). The men averaged 40 years at the start of the study and were initially free of disease. Continue reading “Landmark Study Supports Supplementation for Heart Health”

The One Vitamin You Are Low In

 

By: Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.

Unless you’re supplementing daily with vitamin D, it’s likely you are deficient and don’t even know it. Up to three in every four people tested are low in this vitamin. What’s the risk?

Until recently, vitamin D’s sole job was to support calcium absorption and deposition into bone, thus lowering osteoporosis risk. This role is now considered the tip of the nutritional iceberg.

Every cell in your body has receptors for vitamin D, which means every cell, tissue, organ, and system, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, needs the vitamin. It’s no wonder research shows that vitamin D might aid the body in muscle weakness, gum disease, diabetes, insulin resistance, hearing and vision loss, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, hypertension and depression, among other health conditions. It also supports pregnancy outcome and reduces the incidence of falls by up to 60 percent in seniors, while a deficiency can mimic symptoms of fibromyalgia. Preliminary studies also show a possible link between low vitamin D intake and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease and more.

Continue reading “The One Vitamin You Are Low In”

5 tips to help you age healthier

HappyMother's DayAre the foods on your plate helping you stay healthy through the years? We know what foods are ‘good’ for us, but did you know that what’s on your plate today could affect the way you age?

A recent study, by DSM and Groningen University, looked at why some populations age healthier than others. The researchers found evidence that a lack of nutrients can have long-term health effects. The results of the study support what we already know about the importance of a balanced diet throughout our lives.

It’s not always easy to ensure we’re getting proper nutrition, particularly as we age and need fewer calories and our bodies may absorb less nutrients. To help you stay healthy, try following these five rules:  Continue reading “5 tips to help you age healthier”

Common Misconceptions about Supplements

In our last article, we talked about the difficulties of meeting recommended guidelines for essential nutrients. iStock_000011975542_sm“Even if you follow a healthy diet, a busy lifestyle can make it difficult to obtain the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals from food alone,” says Elizabeth Somer, a leading registered dietitian and author of several books, including “The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals.”

So, how else can we get the nutrition we need? One easy way to maintain good nutrition is to enhance your diet with supplements. The problem for many is that the frequency of new studies combined with the staggering number of supplements available makes it increasingly confusing to know what is right.

To help you put nutrition news in context, Somer is debunking a few of the common misconceptions about dietary supplements:

Continue reading “Common Misconceptions about Supplements”