Food for thought: Can you eat your way to a better brain?

From upping your intake of antioxidants to opting out of alcohol, diet has a lot to do with how your brain ages.

Andy DeSantis, RD 4 minute read December 8, 2021
Creative concept of a healthy brain on a blue background. Close-up.

Omega-3 fatty acids play a fundamental role in brain development starting from the fetal stages. GETTY

Despite accounting for only two per cent of total body weight, the human brain is the unquestionably the most complex organ in the human body.

And while heart health tends to get much more attention from the dietary perspective, the last decade has seen scientists and researchers put much more energy into determining which foods and nutrients are most important for a healthy brain.

So what can you put into your body to give your brain a boost?

Polyphenols. A 2016 paper out of the Frontiers In Neuroscience journal identified dietary polyphenols as a group of nutrients strongly implicated in the healthy aging of the human brain. Polyphenols are a family, or grouping, of antioxidant compounds that occur naturally in a very large array of foods.

According to the European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition‘s list of the top 100 foods ranked by polyphenol content per serving. Among the top 20 is peppermint, sage, dark chocolate, flaxseed, hazelnut, plums, curry powder and cloves, just to name a few.

Omega-3s. There is no getting away from the fact that omega-3 fatty acids play a fundamental role in brain development starting from the fetal stages, all the way into adulthood. The brain is made up of a significant amount of fat, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the dietary fat one consumes plays a role in its health and functioning.

It’s important to understand that omega-3s are essential fatty acids because the human body cannot produce them — they must be consumed through diet or supplementation. However, omega-3s are found in very few foods. Some examples include plant-based foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hempseeds and soy. All of these contain the omega-3 fatty acid known as ALA or alpha-linolenic acid. Marine-based sources such salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel and trout, as well as algae-based supplements (suitable for vegans) contain the fatty acids EPA and DHA which tend to garner more interest and attention.

Ideally, foods from both groups are strongly represented in your diet to ensure optimal brain health.

Pre- and probiotic rich foods. Balancing of your gut’s bacteria between the “good” and “bad” species has become a topic of interest for almost every single health condition.

In a 2020 paper from Aging Research Reviews, the authors discuss how manipulating one’s diet to optimize the balance between good and bad bacteria may play a role in healthy brain aging. But how do we do that?

There are at least two primary ways to optimize our gut microbiome through dietary changes. The first is to eat more fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha and kimchi which contain a high amount of “good” bacteria, and lower levels of inflammation. Secondly, eating more fibre-rich foods is also beneficial to maintaining healthy gut bacteria. Certain types of fibre, referred to as “prebiotic” is exceptionally effective at this role, and found in large supply in apples, oatmeal, asparagus, garlic, onions, artichokes, and others.

And here’s a fun little bonus fact — polyphenols may also act as prebiotics too, making them a win, win when it comes to making the most of your nutrients.

A note on alcohol
There has been a lot of debate around alcohol and the role it plays in our health. A study published earlier this year by Oxford University caught some serious attention when it concluded that there is no “safe” amount of alcohol for the brain. In fact, researchers found that moderate consumption of alcohol was “associated with more widespread adverse effects on the brain than previously recognized,” and that current drinking guidelines “should be revisited to take account of brain effects.”

Current low-risk drinking guidelines for Canada suggest no more than 10 standard weekly drinks for women and no more than 15 for men, but clearly, new research may prompt a reconsideration of these recommendations.

Andy is a registered dietitian and multi-book author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015.  He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at AndyTheRD.com.

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