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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Negri-Cesi P. Bisphenol A Interaction With Brain Development and Functions. Dose-Response. 2015;13(2):1559325815590394. doi:10.1177/1559325815590394.
- 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.
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.
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”
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”
Are 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”
In our last article, we talked about the difficulties of meeting recommended guidelines for essential nutrients. “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”
As we enter 2016, many of us are thinking about our health and nutrition. After the indulgences of the holiday season, it’s time to take a closer look at what’s on our plate. When it comes to getting essential nutrients through food, it’s not enough to add the right foods to your menu, you also need to look at how often and how much of those foods you are eating.
Do you regularly eat a whole cup of sautéed spinach or get three weekly servings of salmon or other fatty fish? Research shows that Americans aren’t making the nutritional grade and, therefore, can lack important vitamins and minerals like folic acid, vitamin E, vitamin K and even vitamin C.
Data on dietary intake from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which used the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index to compare what people say they eat to recommended dietary guidelines, found that children and adults scored 56 points out of a possible 100 (equivalent to an “F” grade), while seniors fared only slightly better at 65 points (equivalent to a “D” grade). The American Heart Association agreed with those findings in its 2013 report on heart disease and stroke, concluding that poor diet and lack of exercise are two of the main factors contributing to the high prevalence of heart disease in the U.S.
While many of us are falling short on meeting recommended dietary guidelines, it’s clear from the sheer amount of healthy lifestyle articles, diets, methods and tips out there that we are striving to be healthier.
Here are a few easy to ways to add extra nutrition to your meals:
- Add a cup of spinach or other leafy greens to your next smoothie. You won’t taste the spinach at all and your drink will be a pretty shade of green.
- Add finely chopped veggies to your pasta sauce, soups and casseroles.
- Swap out white pasta and bread and cereals for whole grain (aim for low-sugar and high-fiber options too).
Do you aim to meet the recommended dietary guidelines? How do you get your get your essential nutrients?