Does Diet Help Keep the Brain Sharp?

Author:  Darcia Brewer, RD, Contracted & Nutrition Services Coordinator

Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan.

Although we have no control over our own genetics as a risk factor for chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, we can make lifestyle decisions that may help keep our brains healthier.  There is much research that indicates diet, as well as other lifestyle factors, such as regular physical activity can help prevent cognitive decline, especially if started early in life.  So what is this “special” diet that helps promote brain function?

The truth is, although emerging science may tweak dietary recommendations, the basics for eating right, for those with and without chronic disease, are relatively well-known and simple.  There is no magic or secret to eating right, yet motivation and putting knowledge to practice is the barrier.  There are many correlations between the risk factors for heart disease and diabetes with increased risk for Alzheimer’s.  So, the science-based dietary guidelines that are good for the heart are also good for the brain and good for everyone in general:

Maintain energy balance – balance energy in (calories consumed through food and beverages) with energy out (physical activity); increases in physical activity (even if small, such as choosing to walk the stairs over taking the elevator), apart from diet, has been shown to slow cognitive deterioration.

Minimize saturated and Trans fats – choose vegetable oils and margarines with liquid vegetable oil as the first listed ingredient and no more than 2 grams saturated fat per tablespoon (examples:  canola, corn, olive, safflower, sesame, soybean and sunflower oils); limit foods that contain hydrogenated fats; choose reduced-fat and no-fat salad dressings/mayo with no more than 1 gram saturated fat per tablespoon; choose lean meats/poultry/cheese (less than 5 grams of total fat per 1 ounce serving); eat fatty fish (mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) at least two times a week (approximately 8 ounces fish per week provides the recommended 500 mg/day of EPA and DHA, essential omega-3 fatty acids); choose vegetable oils (soybean, canola and flaxseed), walnuts, Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and salad greens for other essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Reduce sodium intake – Aim for 2,300 mg sodium or less, daily (1 teaspoon of table salt contains 2,300 mg!); choose foods low in sodium (140 mg or less sodium per serving); for those with hypertension, consume 1,500 mg or less per day for health benefits.

Build your diet around low- and non-fat dairy; legumes (beans), nuts and seeds; fish, lean meat and poultry, as well as

Fruits and vegetables – Aim for 8-9 (1/2 cup servings) of fruits and vegetables of a variety of colors daily; choose whole fruits over fruit juices most often; drink juice that is labeled “100% juice” and “100% vitamin C” if possible.

Whole grains – whole grains are the entire grain kernel, including the outer covering that contains the grain’s fiber and many vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals; aim for at least 3 ounce servings per day of whole grain foods such as (whole wheat bread, crackers, pasta, buns, tortillas; whole grain barley, rye, oatmeal, cornmeal, buckwheat, brown rice, wild rice and popcorn, whole grain cereals); limit refined (processed grains); choose whole grain breakfast cereals that provide at least 3-4 grams fiber per serving, no more than 8 grams total sugar, and less than 3 grams fat; choose foods that list a whole grain (whole wheat, brown rice, oatmeal, corn) as the first ingredient on food labels; don’t be fooled by foods labeled “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain,” or ‘’bran”; some foods are made from mixtures of whole grains and refined grains, so check the first ingredient listed.

Blueberry-Melon Compote with Green Tea-Lime Syrup

Pour 2/3 cup boiling water over 2 green tea bags; let steep 3 to 4 minutes.  Remove tea bags.  Stir 2 Tbsp sugar (or to taste), 1 tsp grated lime zest, and 2 Tbsp lime juice into brewed tea.  Let cool.  Combine 3 cups cubed cantaloupe (1 small or ½ medium) and 2 cups blueberries in large bowl.  Drizzle with green tea syrup and toss gently to coat.  Compote will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.  Makes 6 (2/3-cup) servings, each 72 calories, 1 gram protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiver, 0 grams total fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 13 mg sodium, 50% vitamin A, 60% vitamin C.  Serve with a whole grain and low-fat yogurt to add other food groups to make a meal.

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