Happy New Year! What would be more important than protecting and improving your brain function for the New Year? I can’t think of anything more essential.
Your brain is what makes you human. It brings you pleasure, memories, and helps you solve problems. You can live with a transplanted heart, liver, or other organ, but not without your brain. Without memory, we require constant care from family, friends, or total strangers, and we become a burden on the people we love the most.
Many people worry about memory loss, either for themselves or for a loved one, but did you know that you can improve your brain processing speed and become mentally sharper, quicker, and more productive? No matter what your age, you and your loved ones have the potential to get better.
Part of the reason memory loss is so scary is that memory loss is really common and it is occurring at a younger and younger age. The rate of Alzheimer’s disease is increasing at alarming epidemic rates. In fact, studies show that the number of new cases is predicted to increase by 200 percent in just the next 12-14 years! That means double the risk, so when you forget something, naturally your first thought may be, am I losing my memory?
Likely, the most important factor that impacts whether your brain is functioning optimally, or declining and shrinking, is the food you choose to eat every day.
To start your New Year, let’s focus on six amazing foods that improve brain function:
- Green leafy and other nutrient-dense vegetables
- Omega-3 rich seafood
- Olive oil and nuts
- Organic berries and cherries
- Cocoa and dark chocolate
- Spices and herbs
FOOD #1: VEGETABLES
Did you know that eating 1 cup of green leafy vegetables every day makes your brain, on average, 11 years younger than someone who skips them? Delicious greens are packed with fiber, folate, vitamin K, and anti-oxidants. They decrease inflammation body-wide, and because they provide fiber with little to no sugar, they improve blood sugar control. Green leafy veggies are fantastic for your brain, arteries, and waistline. Good options include foods like kale, broccoli, spinach, and other greens, and if you are not a fan of green leafy vegetables, a really easy way to eat enough of them every day is to add them to a berry smoothie (because you won’t even taste them). Be sure to eat at least one cup per day.
Beyond leafy greens, eat other rainbow-colored vegetables, loaded with their protective pigments to slow cellular aging (including brain cells). Try to eat at least 3-4 cups of vegetables every day.
In particular, vegetables rich in nitrates improve blood flow to the part of your brain that enhances cognitive performance. By far, beets are the best source of brain-enhancing-nitrates, but other options are: arugula (also called rocket salad), spinach, and dark green lettuce.
FOOD #2: OMEGA-3 RICH SEAFOOD
You should eat at least 2-3 servings of omega-3 rich seafood every week. After all, your brain is 40 percent by weight made from these fats. Not only do these healthy fats nourish your brain, but they also decrease inflammation and improve your cholesterol. Choose foods such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, mussels, and oysters, or if you are vegetarian, have a seaweed salad daily.
If you don’t enjoy this type of seafood, then I’d strongly recommend that you take a high-quality form of fish oil daily, and if you are vegetarian, take a seaweed source of a DHA supplement.
FOOD #3: EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL and NUTS
Another fat that is really good for your brain is extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil has been a culinary star for thousands of years, adding an irresistible flavor to food. It’s a staple in the Mediterranean diet, and famous for decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. People who consume more olive oil have lower rates of cognitive decline and better brain function.
The acclaimed Mediterranean Diet study from Spain is considered one of the most conclusive studies comparing the health benefits of a standard low-fat diet to a Mediterranean diet with liberal amounts of olive oil or nuts. The study showed that people in the low-fat diet group developed higher rates of cognitive impairment and dementia than the olive oil group. And people who ate extra olive oil had better cognitive scores than the low-fat eaters. This is why I recommend one or more tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil daily. Toss it in a salad, use it in place of butter, and drizzle it on food after you’ve cooked it.
In this same study, they also showed that eating more nuts improves brain function and helps to prevent cognitive decline, just like adding olive oil. Aim to eat two handfuls (about 2 ounces) of nuts every day, in particular, choose: almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, and macadamia nuts.
FOOD #4: ORGANIC BERRIES AND CHERRIES
Many plant pigments, but especially blue, purple, and red are associated with increased brain blood flow and less memory loss. Berries and cherries will satisfy your taste for sweetness without the damaging effects of increasing blood sugar levels, so they’re a fabulous dessert.
In studies, blueberries have been shown to improve cognition and slow cognitive decline, and also to reduce the production of beta-amyloid, the protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So please, enjoy a cup of cherries or berries every day.
One of my preferred desserts is a bowl of blueberries and raspberries with a dollop of organic, unsweetened yogurt. It’s terrific! Organic fresh berries are delectable when you can get them in season, but frozen berries are convenient, far less expensive, and just as beneficial.
FOOD #5: DARK CHOCOLATE AND COCOA
Another delicious source of brain healthy plant pigments is dark chocolate and cocoa. With functional MRI brain imaging, when scientists measure blood flow to areas of your brain, they can actually see how consuming cocoa improves cerebral blood flow, in particular to the memory center of the brain, the hippocampus.
More recent research has shown that eight weeks of drinking a few tablespoons of cocoa every day improved cognitive testing results in older adults, especially for those with early cognitive decline. And eating 1-2 ounces (28-56 grams) of dark chocolate daily has similar benefits.
For the best brain benefit, look for cocoa brands labeled “non-alkalized” to ensure maximum flavonoid content. And when it comes to selecting dark chocolate, don’t confuse milk chocolate with dark chocolate. It must be at least 74-80% cacao to make the cut.
FOOD #7: SPICES AND HERBS
Seasoning your food with herbs and spices makes your food taste fantastic and provides extraordinary health benefits. If you want to slow aging, protect your brain, and have fewer aches and pains, simply eat more herbs and spices.
All the Italian and French fine herbs are anti-inflammatory and have beneficial properties for your brain, and I use at least 1 teaspoon of these when cooking every day.
Especially beneficial is rosemary, which has been called a brain-boosting herb. Animal studies in mice and rats have shown that it slows cognitive decline and helps to maintain memory. In Italy’s southern regions, some locals eat rosemary-infused foods at nearly every meal. In one area near Naples, researchers have noted a very high rate of people who live into their nineties, with surprisingly low rates of dementia as well. I consider rosemary a terrific culinary herb; I grow it in my garden and cook with it several times per week.
Don’t limit your palate to Mediterranean cuisine when you’re searching out healthful, fabulous flavors. In southern India (where curry spices are used in abundance), studies show that they have one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s on the planet. Curry spices have amazing anti-inflammatory power. Eating them decreases joint pain, lowers cancer risk, and helps prevent memory loss. A typical blend of curry spices would include coriander, turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek, and may also include chili pepper, ginger, garlic, fennel seed, caraway, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, cardamom, nutmeg, and black pepper. The potential varieties are nearly endless, and they don’t always have to be spicy hot.
The best-known individual curry spice with brain benefits is turmeric, the yellow, ginger-like plant. Turmeric plays an essential role in curry spice blends. A variety of studies using turmeric have suggested that it slows cognitive decline and benefits cognitive function. The challenge is that it is generally poorly absorbed, and the quantities needed to show a benefit are big, as in you’d need to eat about 3 heaping tablespoons of turmeric every day. When I lived and worked as a volunteer in various hospitals in India, including at a leprosarium near Calcutta, I likely ate this amount daily. That was when I ate curry- flavored meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ll admit that I don’t eat that much curry spice living in my home in Florida. Instead, I aim to eat meals with curry spices 1-2 times per week, and I take a 1000 mg curcumin supplement, Curcum-Evail, every day.
The bottom line is that you can improve your brain function starting right now (and prevent or delay future memory loss) by adding foods that boost brain function.
Happy New Year and Bon Appétit!
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS
My book, The Better Brain Solution, is now available in paperback. This amazing step-by-step guide will help improve your cognitive function and prevent memory loss. This includes 50 delicious, easy-to-prepare recipes designed for optimal brain health.
You can ORDER the book from these retailers.
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