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Feeding Your Body, Feeding Your Brain

Contributors: Diane Welland, MS, RD

Published: June 21, 2024

Couple prepares a meal using ingredients that are brain health-boosting foods
Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Being healthy means taking care of your brain as well as your body. This is especially important as we age because the risk of dementia increases over time. While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia for adults, affecting more than 6 million Americans ages 65 and older, it isn’t the only type.

Other illnesses and conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, alcoholism, stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and traumatic head injury, also can cause dementia. Additionally, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease can increase risk of dementia, so managing these conditions is important.

Making healthful lifestyle choices, including getting regular physical activity, socializing, limiting alcohol intake and not smoking, can help to reduce your risk for dementia. Scientific evidence has shown that eating patterns such as the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet may be beneficial to your body as well as your brain, helping to protect against cognitive decline. Certain nutrients are especially important for brain health and may help maintain and improve cognitive function, including:

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids – About 60% of the brain is composed of polyunsaturated fatty acids. The most abundant type is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid. Some research suggests diets rich in omega-3s, combined with a low saturated fat intake, may lower the risk of cognitive decline.
  2. B vitamins – B vitamins, including B6, B12 and folate, are known for their role in metabolizing homocysteine, one of the amino acids in protein. High levels of this amino acid are considered a risk factor for cognitive impairment, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. B vitamins are involved in many other aspects of brain function, and deficiencies may affect mental health and lead to cognitive decline. However, research on B vitamin supplementation and cognitive function remains unclear.
  3. Antioxidants and Phytonutrients – The brain is particularly susceptible to damage caused by free radicals, which are substances that attack healthy cells. Vitamins C and E, as well as the mineral selenium and phytonutrients such as lycopene, are antioxidants and are known to help minimize damage caused by chronic stress and free radicals. Other well-known phytonutrients — such as anthocyanins, which give certain fruits and vegetables their color — are thought to have a positive effect on brain function.
  4. Vitamin D – Vitamin D is found in nearly every cell in the body, so it’s no surprise this vitamin is present in brain cells. Vitamin D is believed to have protective effects against cognitive decline, and research has suggested that low blood levels of vitamin D may affect brain health.
  5. Choline – Choline is an essential nutrient required for fat transport and metabolism. It is necessary for normal brain and nervous system function, muscle control and other functions.

Focusing on an overall healthy eating pattern that includes these nutrients from foods is important for good health. Get these nutrients from a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein foods and healthy fats, including:

  • Berries, including strawberries and blueberries, citrus fruits, grapes and watermelon
  • Dark, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, collard greens and broccoli
  • Whole-wheat bread, oats, quinoa and other whole grains
  • Seafood including shellfish and fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and herring
  • Nuts and seeds such as chia, flaxseed, walnuts and almonds
  • Beans and lentils, including chickpeas, black beans and lima beans
  • Whole eggs, skinless chicken and turkey
  • Sources of unsaturated fat such as avocados and olive oil

Remember: While making healthful food choices is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, other important factors that contribute to overall health include getting enough sleep, managing stress, staying hydrated and adding regular physical activity to your daily routine.

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