Replacing as little as 10 percent of the ultra-processed foods in your diet with minimally processed or whole ones can reduce dementia risk.
Cognitive decline is more common than you might expect, affecting about 1 in 9 adults in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Luckily, research shows several daily habits can slash your risk for diseases like dementia — including paying attention to what goes into your grocery cart and on your plate.
“An overall dietary pattern of eating whole foods from a variety of food groups and much fewer ultra-processed ones provides the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to improving brain health outcomes,” says Bonnie J Kaplan PhD, a research psychologist and coauthor of The Better Brain: Overcome Anxiety, Combat Depression, and Reduce ADHD and Stress with Nutrition.
Ultra-processed foods, which are typically packaged snack foods and beverages that contain lots of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats, appear to be a big culprit in the risk for cognitive decline, but alarmingly, they make up a large portion of the typical Western diet. Replacing just 10 percent of the ultra-processed foods in an individual’s diet with the same amount by weight of unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 19 percent reduction in dementia risk, according to a study published in July 2022 in Neurology that followed 72,083 adults 55 or older for an average of 10 years. “Poor diets not only fail to provide essential brain-protecting nutrients but add insult to injury by flooding the brain with harmful substances,” says Elizabeth Somer, RD, the Salem, Oregon–based author of Food & Mood.
So certainly, food is one of the most important levers we can pull when it comes to brain health. Some foods have the compounds to help keep your brain performing well, while others lack any of the nutrition necessary to bolster mental health. And you might be surprised by some of the edibles that can help turn back your brain’s clock and improve your state of mind. Here’s your cheat sheet for the foods (and one drink) that you should remember to add to your grocery list to help support your noodle.
These inexpensive canned fish are one of the best sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in the supermarket, which some research suggests may help slow age-related cognitive decline. An investigation in the journal Nutrients involving 6,587 adults found that fatty fish consumption, which includes sardines and salmon, and moderate marine-sourced omega-3 fat intake was associated with less prevalence of depression symptoms. And a study published in July 2021 in The BMJ discovered that higher omega-3 intake is tied to fewer, less severe headaches in those who suffer from these skull crushers.
“Essentially, we are fat heads, as our brains are composed of 60 percent fat,” says Dr. Kaplan, referring to lipids in the gray matter. “So the cell walls in our brains require healthy fats, including omega-3s, to function optimally.” She adds that consuming more omega-3 fats and fewer omega-6 ones from heavily processed foods can improve the ratio of these in our diets to help lower inflammation in the brain and make it easier to maintain better cognitive functioning. “We don’t yet know the ideal amount of seafood to eat for brain health, but a good suggestion is to aim for two servings of fatty fish a week,” Kaplan says.
Canned sardines are a good source of vitamin D as well. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving provides 193 IU or 24 percent of the daily value, according to nutrition numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Researchers found that older individuals with the highest food-sourced vitamin D consumption levels were less likely to develop dementia, compared with those who had the least vitamin D intake from food, even after accounting for various dementia risk factors. The findings were published in September 2020 in Alzheimer's & Dementia. “We can’t expect to optimize brain health with just one vitamin, but vitamin D can be considered important along with all of the other nutrients,” says Kaplan. “Being deficient in any nutrient, including vitamin D, is never going to be good news for brain functioning.”
Few Americans get enough vitamin D from sunshine or food sources, so adding tinned sardines to your diet more often can be a smart move. Try the diminutive swimmers in sandwiches, pasta dishes, and frittatas.
Could tossing strawberries on your oatmeal or yogurt or blitzing them into your smoothies help protect your brain from Alzheimer’s? Maybe so, say researchers at RUSH University. Their research, published in July 2022 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, discovered that a compound abundant in strawberries (more so than other common berries) called pelargonidin may be associated with fewer neurofibrillary tau tangles in the brain. This is important since abnormal changes in tau proteins in the brain are considered one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. The study authors believe that the anti-inflammatory properties of pelargonidin may decrease overall neuroinflammation, which can help keep these tau proteins from getting misfolded, and thus allow for improved transport of nutrients and other important substances from one part of brain nerve cells to another.
At this point, we don’t have enough evidence to say how many strawberries a person needs to eat to have a brain benefit, but likely you can’t go wrong with a daily ½ cup serving of the juicy sweet fruit.
We should also remember that strawberries and other fruit can be a daily source of water to help with maintaining better hydration. Letting yourself get dehydrated might lead to an acute impairment in mental functioning including working memory and executive function, according to past research.
Perhaps not all lentils are created equal when it comes to protecting our grey matter. A study published in September 2021 in Neurology found that adults who ate at least half a serving of foods rich in plant-based flavonoids every day had a 20 percent reduced risk for cognitive decline, compared with those who ate fewer foods rich in flavonoids. The findings, based on data from 49,493 women and 27,842 men, also revealed that anthocyanins — commonly found in blackberries, blueberries, cherries, and black lentils — had some of the most protective effects against cognitive decline among individual flavonoids. “These compounds have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects which can boost brain health and help prevent a premature loss of cognitive capabilities,” says Somer.
What’s more, black lentils, like all legumes, are an excellent source of dietary fiber. Most people fail to get the fiber they need each day — 28 grams per day for adults on a 2,000-calorie diet, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — and this shortfall could be jeopardizing long-term brain functioning. A study published in February 2022 in Nutritional Neuroscience found that among adults aged 40 to 64 a high-fiber diet may reduce the risk of suffering from disabling dementia. The link was especially evident for soluble fiber, which is found in lentils.
The mechanisms are currently unknown but might involve interactions that take place between the gut and the brain: Fiber can regulate the composition of the microbiome, the collection of healthy microorganisms in the human gastrointestinal tract, which, in turn, may impact inflammation in the brain.
Since black lentils hold their shape well when cooked and also taste less earthy than other lentils, they are a great addition to salads and soups.
When it comes to our brains, choline is a nutrient you certainly don’t want to skimp on. “Choline is a building block for a special category of fats called phospholipids found in cell membranes and the nerve chemical acetylcholine, which regulates memory,” says Somer. “In fact, Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by an underproduction of acetylcholine,” she adds. Findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest that a greater dietary intake of phosphatidylcholine, a form of choline, is linked to a lower risk for dementia and enhanced cognitive performance. And if you are a mom-to-be you want to make sure to get sufficient amounts of choline, since evidence suggests it can benefit infant brain development.
Somer stresses that although the body manufactures choline with the help of other nutrients, such as folic acid and vitamin B12, sometimes it doesn’t produce enough to maintain normal brain function. That’s where eggs can lend a big assist. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), eggs, more specifically the yolks, are just about the richest source of choline in the supermarket, second only to beef liver. A single egg delivers about 30 percent of the daily requirement for brain-benefiting choline. The key source of phosphatidylcholine in the diets of participants of the aforementioned study were eggs. And people who regularly eat eggs typically take in twice the amount of choline as those who don’t consume eggs, per a study in the journal Nutrients.
All vegetables are good for you, but Popeye’s favorite green is one of the top choices to help protect your noggin and keep it sharp. Why? Spinach is especially high in carotenoid antioxidants including beta-carotene and lutein, which a study published in 2020 in the Journal of Nutrition found can lower the odds of moderate or poor cognitive function in women as they age. In supporting research, one study in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience found that middle-aged participants with higher levels of lutein had neural responses that were more on par with younger individuals. But don’t think you can just load up on carotenoids occasionally and expect to keep your brain in tip-top shape. Intakes of these plant compounds found in colorful veggies including leafy greens, bell peppers, sweet potato, and tomatoes need to remain consistently high for several years to have a benefit.
Part of the mechanism might be how these antioxidant carotenoids help fend off age-accelerating oxidative damage to brain cells. “A greater intake of carotenoids is also a marker that a person is eating an overall whole-foods nutrient-dense diet that is crucial to support brain health,” adds Kaplan. “This is why we are told to eat the rainbow; carotenoids are the yellow, orange and red pigments found in many fruits and vegetables.”
Beyond salads, spinach can be blitzed into smoothies (with other ingredients like fruit you won’t even taste it), stir it into stews, curries and soups at the end of cooking, blend into pestos, and add a generous amount to frittatas.
Eating more protein isn’t just good for building lean muscle, but also a potential way to delay brain decline and slow the onset of dementia. In an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigation designed to test the associations between yearly protein intake and age-related cognitive decline, it was discovered that adult women and men who took in more protein relative to carbohydrates over several years experienced fewer signs of wavering cognitive functioning. Protein from fish, lean poultry, and legumes was found to be especially beneficial but interestingly, plant protein sources were linked to a greater brain benefit than many animal-based proteins. Somer says that is likely the result of plant-based foods being packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that help protect the brain from oxidative damage and supply all the building blocks to build and maintain a well-functioning brain.
Produced when whole soybeans are soaked, cooked, left to ferment with a fungus, and then pressed into a firm, dense patty, tempeh delivers 20 grams of brain-benefiting protein in a 3-ounce serving, per USDA data. It’s also a reliable source of iron. Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that women with healthy iron levels performed better on mental tasks and completed them faster than did those with poor iron status. Iron helps transport oxygen throughout the body including to the brain which needs oxygen to function properly.
Use cooked tempeh in grain bowls, salads, sandwiches and tacos. Or crumble a block with the large holes of a box grater and use the grounds to make a meat-free chili, plant-based meatballs, veggie burgers or a Bolognese for pasta night. Cut it into cubes and pair it with colorful vegetables for a brain-boosting vegan kabob.
Perhaps an avocado-a-day can help keep the brain doc at bay. People who ate avocado daily for six months saw a significant boost in working memory and problem-solving efficiency, a study in the journal Nutrients found. The investigators attributed the benefit to the high bioavailable levels of the antioxidant lutein in the creamy fruit, which, after eating, is incorporated into our brains. “Every cell in our body, including in the brain, has mitochondria, which function to produce ATP, the energy molecule, and one of the main functions of ATP is to tamp down excessive inflammation,” says Kaplan, adding, “phytonutrients like lutein are plant-based nutrients we derive from whole foods that help our mitochondria produce sufficient amounts of ATP.”
Far from a one-hit wonder, avocado is also rich in other items like monounsaturated fat, folate, and fiber that can also keep your brain from aging on the fast track.
Of course, if you are going to be adding more avocado to your toast and salads as a delicious way to help turn back your brain’s clock, you’ll need to be cognizant of its calories — about 322 in one fruit, according to the USDA. So ideally, you would swap out some of the calories from less healthy foods for those from avocado, to give your brain an assist.
We’ve all heard about the health benefits of green tea, but are you aware of its superpowered sibling, matcha? Both are derived from the tea plant Camellia sinensis, but matcha is made from shade-grown leaves that are ground into a fine powder, meaning it contains brain-protecting nutrients and antioxidants — including flavonoids and phenolics — from the entire leaf, research has shown.
“The brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue, which exposes it to a huge daily dose of oxygen fragments called free radicals,” says Somer. “Free radicals are trouble makers, attacking, damaging, and destroying every brain cell in sight, and the wear and tear after decades of free-radical attacks is thought to contribute to the gradual loss of memory and thinking associated with aging.” Fortunately, she says the body has an anti-free-radical army made up of diet-derived antioxidants that deactivate these harmful oxygen fragments. While colorful produce is the very best source of these antioxidants, green tea is also a viable provider. And matcha powder has even greater antioxidant levels than typical green tea, per a comparison study from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Green tea and matcha also supply a unique amino acid called L-theanine, which at higher intakes may be associated with cognitive improvements, including better performance on memory tasks, as reported in the Journal of Medicinal Food. But if you can get enough L-theanine from your matcha latte to have a noticeable cognitive benefit long-term is not known. Kaplan does mention that there is some research to suggest that amino acids such as L-theanine, found in green tea, can also have a supportive role in reducing bouts of anxiety. But she believes one of the biggest improvements to our brain health that can come with drinking tea is if it replaces the sugary drinks in our diets. “Liquid sugar is especially harmful to our brain and overall health.” In other words, it’s best not to spike your iced matcha or any other tea beverage with the sweet stuff.