Nutrition for Your Noggin

Feed Your Brain

Welcome to installment 2/6 in my brain health series! This series is inspired by 'The Alzheimer's Solution' by Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherazi. In my first post, I explained that lifestyle choices can prevent up to 90% of Alzheimer's cases.  For the 10% of cases that can't be prevented due to very strong genetic risk (such as in those that carry the APOE4 gene), lifestyle changes can delay presentation or progression of the disease by up to 15 years. I went on to describe the 4 main biological processes (inflammation, oxidation, lipid dysregulation and glucose dysregulation) that lead to cognitive decline of varying degrees (from mild short-term memory impairment to Alzheimer's). There are 5 main lifestyle tenets for optimizing brain health that I will cover over the course of this blog series.  They include nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep and regularly engaging in complex cognitive activities. The focus of this post is the most important of the tenets: nutrition for your noggin. 

The brain compromises just 2% of our body weight, but utilizes up to 25% of the body’s energy. Since food is the source of our energy, our brains are super susceptible to the food choices we make. If you want to do right for your brain, choose whole plant-based foods and avoid foods high in refined sugar, meat and dairy.  In fact, diets high in refined sugar and meat (including poultry and fish) unequivocally contribute to cognitive decline as they spur a cascade of the 4 biological processes listed above (read the first post in the series for more about this). The good news is that numerous studies have proven that incremental steps toward brain-healthy eating at any age can have tremendous benefits.

While all whole, unprocessed plant foods are good for the brain, there are certain foods that give you even more bang for your buck. Here they are:

Top 20 Brain Nourishing Foods

1)    Avocado

2)    Beans

3)    Blueberries

4)    Broccoli

5)    Coffee

6)    Dark Chocolate (unprocessed cocoa or cocoa nibs)

7)    Extra-virgin olive oil (in small amounts)

8)    Ground flax seed

9)    Herbal tea (especially mint, lemon balm and hibiscus)

10) Herbs (fresh or dried)

11) Leafy greens

12) Mushrooms

13) Nuts

14) Omega-3 Fatty Acids (derived from algae)

15) Quinoa

16) Seeds (especially chia and sunflower)

17) Spices

18) Sweet Potatoes

19) Tea (especially green tea)

20) Turmeric

21) Whole grains (100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain bread, quinoa, brown rice, etc)

pike's place.jpg

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are certain food choices that are particularly bad for your brain.

Top Ten Foods to Avoid for Brain Health

1)    Processed foods (chips, white bread)

2)    Processed meats (pastrami, salami, bacon, hot dogs)--> these are also class 1 carcinogens

3)    Red meat

4)    Chicken

5)    Butter and margarine

6)    Fried food and fast food

7)    Cheese

8)    Pastries, candy and other sweets

9)    Sugary drinks (the main source of sugar in the standard American diet)

10) Excessive alcohol

While the brain benefits from all plant-based macro and micronutrients, omega-3 essential fatty acids (essential refers to the fact that they aren't naturally synthesized in our body, so we need to regularly consume sources of omega-3) are particularly critical for brain health.  This type of fat, which improves cognitive function, causes less brain shrinkage and maintains better brain structure, is found in walnuts, chia, flax, hemp seeds, kale, Brussel sprouts, spinach, marine algae and fish. There are 3 types of Omega-3: ALA, EPA and DHA. While plant-based sources provide adequate doses of ALA, the EPA and DHA aren't well absorbed. Fish are high in EPA and DHA omega-3's, but farmed fish and large predatory fish (like albacore tuna, swordfish, halibut, red snapper, mackerel, pike, marlin and sea bass are high in mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, otherwise known as the toxin PCB, and other toxic industrial chemicals).  If you must consume fish, it’s better to choose wild sources of smaller, less contaminated fish like anchovies, sardines, and salmon. The best option is to consume a pollutant-free source of marine algae.  This is how fish get omega-3's too. They eat the algae and the omega-3 is stored in their muscle and fat, so they act as a middleman for us.  Instead, you can skip the fish and go straight to the source! Most lifestyle medicine physicians would recommend consuming 250 mg of a DHA/EPA algae supplement daily.  Here are a few options:

Note that it's important to discuss starting any new medications or supplements with your health care provider.

We live in a society that tends to take a reductionist approach when it comes to nutrition.  We isolate and villanize carbohydrates one week and fat the next.  It can get confusing.  I think the most confusion lies around carbohydrates and it's particularly important to clear this up for the purposes of brain health. The truth is our body needs carbohydrates.  Carbs are the primary source of energy for our body and brain.  Not all carbs are created equal though. High-sugar, processed carbohydrates are very inflammatory and particularly harmful for our brain, whereas whole, unprocessed carbs have an anti-inflammatory effect and provide our brain with the energy it needs to thrive.

Healthy sources of carbohydrates that you should consume regularly include:

  1. Whole grains like quinoa, oats and barley
  2. Fiber-rich vegetables like leafy greens, squash, and bell peppers
  3. Fruits, especially berries
  4. Root vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots and rutabaga

Unhealthy sources of carbohydrates that you should strive to eliminate include:

  1. All refined sugar
  2.  Fruit juices- one glass of OJ can have 28 grams of sugar and since there is no fiber attached to it our blood sugar spikes rapidly (read: bad for brain health).  Smoothies, which include fiber to better regulate blood sugar, are a better option. Whole fruit is the best option!
  3. Natural sugars like agave, honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup- they have a lower glycemic index than refined sugar but the spike in glucose is similar in the brain.

Sugar is hidden EVERYWHERE in packaged foods.  You'll find added sugar in peanut butter, ketchup, pasta sauce, etc., though you can definitely find brands of these foods without the added sugar.  It's important to pay attention to the ingredients on nutrition labels (learn how to decipher a nutrition label here).  Here are some of the many names of sugar you'll find hidden in ingredient lists:

  •  Agave
  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose

Aside from scoping out ingredient lists, here are some other tips for reducing refined sugar intake:

1.     Don’t put sugar in your coffee. If you need a sweetener use stevia or erythritol.  Milk is also very high in sugar, so by eliminating milk and using unsweetened varieties of plant-based milk (like almond milk) you are eliminating a lot of sugar.

2.     Eliminate processed salad dressings by making your own, by using lemon juice and a small amount of olive oil or by using vinegars.

3.     Opt for unsweetened plant-based yogurt varieties.

4.     Avoid bottled pasta sauce by making your own.

5.     Avoid snacks with refined flours (like pretzels) as this turns to sugar in your body.

6.    Avoid bread and pasta that aren't 100% whole wheat (not just 100% wheat) or 100% whole grain (not just multi-grain).

7.     Don't buy any cereal that has more than 6 grams of sugar per serving

So how else can you start eating to optimize brain health?  I like to follow the concept of 'crowding out' in which you add in healthy foods to naturally crowd out the foods that may be harmful.  For example, start by ensuring you have a large serving of greens or another veggie at every meal and eat that first. This way you are less likely to eat as much of the foods on your plate that might not be as healthy.  You can also commit to eating a whole food plant-based meal at least once a day or commit to eating completely plant-based one day a week.  Once you are doing that consistently, increase your goal. The habit changes we make are more effective and sustainable when the changes are incremental. Eating sweet vegetables like a sweet potato sprinkled with cinnamon can curb dessert cravings.

All of these changes come along with an extra bonus: what’s good for the brain is also good for the rest of the body! 

Totally baffled by how to make a plant-based meal?  Check out the meal planner and recipes on Forks Over Knives.  

Next up in the brain health series: exercise and brain health.  Stay tuned.