Food for Thought – How Food Can Impact Our Brain Health

June 22, 2020

Our diet affects just about every aspect of our health – heart health, gut health, and even brain health! Studies have shown that the right foods can power the brain, not only impacting mood and the ability to think clearly, but also slowing the development of certain neurological and mental conditions.

Research suggests that foods rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties are key to maintaining optimal brain health. Cheri Leahy, RDN, CSOWM, and Andrea Bookoff, MS, RD, Bariatric Dietitians with Jefferson Health New Jersey, help break down how this works.

The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which contributes to age-related cognitive decline, explains Bookoff. “Antioxidants are especially important to consume, because they help reduce this stress and inflammation in the body and brain.”

The more stress and inflammation are reduced, the more brain function is improved, says Leahy. Some benefits of brain-friendly foods include reduced memory loss; heightened alertness and overall cognitive abilities; balanced mood disorders; reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease; reduced risk for stroke; improved depression and post-partum depression; and improved ADD/ADHD in children.

Body weight may also play a role in brain health, as many studies have shown a possible link between obesity and a reduction in brain size, having a negative impact on cognition, adds Bookoff. 

“Brain foods” are especially important to incorporate into your diet as you age, but, ultimately, they are beneficial for everyone. Leahy and Bookoff always encourage their patients to fuel their minds as well as their bodies. Some of the best foods and nutrients for brain health include:

  • Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and other highly unsaturated fats, such as fish (salmon or mackerel), flax seeds, krill, chia, kiwi, butternuts, and walnuts. Deficiency in this nutrient has been linked to an increased risk of various conditions, including dementia, attention-deficit disorder, and depression, according to a University of California study.
  • Leafy green vegetables, such as kale, arugula, and spinach, which contain high amounts of vitamin K, lutein, folate, beta carotene, and antioxidants. Folate, specifically, has shown to effectively prevent cognitive decline and dementia during aging.
  • Dark-colored berries, such as raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries, which are high in flavonoids and antioxidants. Flavonoids are plant chemicals associated with improving brain function and cardiovascular health.

The “MIND Diet,” chock-full of many of these foods, has proven to help with brain health and slow the onset of dementia, explains Bookoff. It’s a combination of two other popular, proven diets: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which both improve cardiovascular health significantly, and together, yield a variety of great benefits.

Of course, there are certain foods and dietary habits that can be detrimental to our brain health, such as consuming foods high in refined sugar. “While the short-term implication of sugary foods is often a ‘rush’ and subsequent ‘crash,’ overtime, excess consumption of such foods can promote oxidative stress, impairing cognition and worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety,” said Bookoff.

Additionally, Bookoff notes that vitamin deficiencies – most commonly with vitamins B and D – can also have a short-term effect on the brain, causing a “brain fog” or state of confusion.

While many other habits play a role in brain health – such as physical activity, sleep, and mental stimulation – proper nutrition should not be ignored.

"Our Bariatric Surgery Program encourages all patients to choose nutritious options that fuel their bodies and minds equally," said Leahy. "When they do, the health benefits are endless!" 

To learn more about Bariatric Surgery services offered at Jefferson Health New Jersey, click HERE