The old adage "food for thought" should be taken literally: The foods you eat greatly affect the inner workings of your mind. Similarly, eating "brain food" is much more than just a suggestion from your parents or teachers when you were a kid—just like we aim to incorporate more protein and greens for a leaner figure, we need to choose the most beneficial foods to help (literally) feed our noggins.
Unfortunately, many Western foods, specifically those with additives, are clouding our brains. In a study conducted at Brigham and Women's Hospital, over 6000 elder participants were tested for cognition and memory in relation to their diets during a five-year period. At the conclusion of the study, those who ate a diet high in saturated fats saw worse global cognitive and verbal memory trajectories as compared to those who ate a diet high in monounsaturated fatty acids (like proponents of the much-acclaimed Mediterranean Diet). While it's unclear how saturated fats affect the brain chemistry, an article from Harvard suggests that a gene called apolipoprotein E, or APOE, is associated with the amount of cholesterol in your blood, and people with a variation of this gene (APOE e4) are at greater risk for Alzheimer's disease.
To help decipher what we should eat (and avoid) for a clear, strong mind, we investigated which foods are high in these bad fats (and good fats). Read on to find out what they are!
First, The Bad
People with the APOE e4 genetic variation have a greater number of sticky protein clumps, called beta-amyloid plaques, in the brain. Thus, a diet high in saturated fat can decrease the brain's ability to fight off the plaque, which harms brain cells and is linked to Alzheimer's.
Also, believe it or not, saturated fat impairs your brain's ability to learn and form new memories within as little as 10 minutes after eating. Such foods include bacon, pepperoni, pork sausage, and chorizo, as well as butter and cheese. According to Christopher Calapai, DO, a New York City osteopathic physician, board-certified in family and anti-aging medicine, "Look, we all like to indulge from time to time, and that is fine, but when saturated fats are staples in your diet, then that's going to take a toll."
"White foods" like white rice, bread, and pasta raise the body's glycemic index, which increases inflammation in the brain.
Deemed the worst food group in the world, partially hydrogenated foods (read: store-bought cookies and cakes, and fried foods) are hard to break down in the body and just hang out like a menacing toxin, leading to heart disease and Alzheimer's.
"Diets high in trans fats increase beta-amyloid, peptide plaque deposits in the brain. One study from Neurology found that people who consumed high levels of trans fats had lower cognitive abilities and smaller brains later in life," says Calapai.
Ready for this shocking statistic? The average American eats 79 pounds of added sweeteners per year, which causes neuron-damaging inflammation. One study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that large amounts of sugar cause the hippocampus (the brain's memory control center) to become inflamed, affecting its ability to function properly.
Sugar can also cause depression, according to Calapai. "Sugar is a big trap because when you eat something sweet, there's a high initially. It feels good at first taste, but then once it starts to be processed in the body, there's a heaviness that follows."
Now, The Good
According to Calapai, avocados are a rich source of the antioxidant vitamin E, which research suggests is associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's. In that sense, paying extra for guac seems like a worthy investment, doesn't it?
"I eat these daily and encourage patients to add blueberries to as many things as possible," advises Calapai. "They're great on their own, added to a shake, to oatmeal, or even to a salad."
Blueberries are packed with vitamin C, vitamin K, and fiber, as well as high levels of gallic acid, which protects the brain from degeneration. "Studies show that eating blueberries can boost focus and memory for up to five hours," adds Calapai.
Researchers have discovered that drinking beet juice increases blood flow to the brain (also known as perfusion). Beets are high in nitrates, which open up the blood vessels and allow for increased flow and delivery of oxygen, especially to areas that are lacking. Next time you have a big exam or presentation, try a glass of this goodness (or if you can't stomach it, blend it into a smoothie).
Leafy greens like spinach and kale are also high in brain-nourishing nitrates. In one study of 950 older adults, researchers found that individuals who ate one to two servings of leafy greens per day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who consumed none.
Fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel are all high in omega-3s, a powerful brain-boosting nutrient. Says Calapai, "People who are lacking in omega-3s can experience mood swings and feel edgy or negative. Omega-3s have been known to be mood boosters in addition to enhancing focus and memory."
Do yourself a favor and have at least one cup of broccoli as often as you can—this small portion provides you with 150% of your recommended daily intake. It's also loaded with vitamin K and choline, which is a B vitamin known for aiding brain development and keeping the memory sharp.
"People hear broccoli and roll their eyes thinking it's bland and boring," says Calapai. "Think of broccoli as a canvas ready to be painted with spices and flavors." He recommends stir-frying with a bit of olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper.
"Adding nuts to your diet can aid in decreasing levels of enzymes that lead to the formation of plaque and dementia," says Calapai. "Nuts can also reduce brain inflammation and keep blood pressure low—two things that are key for preventing stroke." Try eating walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flaxseed, and un-hydrogenated nut butter such as peanut butter, almond butter, and tahini.
Up next, read up on how strength training (positively) affects your brain.