Eat to Protect Brain Health
The blog post Colour and Cognitive Decline extols the benefits of eating colourful plant foods for brain health. Here are some more dietary tips to protect cognitive function throughout life:
Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet – inflammation is toxic to the body and the brain. Anti-inflammatory foods include those rich in beneficial oils such as avocados, nuts, seeds, cold pressed oils and oily fish as well as fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and coriander.
Eat Mediterranean – eating a diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses, fish and olive oil is associated with a decreased risk of dementia.
Manage health conditions – take steps to reduce high blood pressure, manage blood sugar and diabetes, correct abnormal blood fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides, and lose weight if you are classified as overweight or obese.
Intermittent fasting – increasing the times between meals and snacks gives the body the chance to adapt to going without food. It increases autophagy – a process whereby the body breaks down old cells, cellular debris and toxins. Try increasing the length of your overnight fast by an hour or two. Alternatively try eating just 500 calories on 1 or 2 days a week.
Low-protein high-carbohydrate diets – surprisingly, given the fashion for low carb diets at the moment, a study on mice found that a low protein, high carbohydrate diet led to improvements in overall health, brain health, learning and memory. The low protein, high carbohydrate diet appears to have similar protective effects on the brain as calorie restriction, which is well known for its longevity inducing benefits, but is not sustainable for most people (3). Many long lived peoples, such as the Okinawans in Japan, eat low protein diets containing about 9% protein.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – consumption of extra virgin olive oil is associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease possibly by activating autophagy. Olive oil consumption appears to help reduce amyloid growth, clears deposits, mitigates against age-related memory decline and decreases the onset of Alzheimer’s in laboratory animals (4). Try adding two tablespoons of cold pressed extra virgin olive oil to your diet every day.
Go Nuts – eating more than 10 grams, or 2 teaspoons, of nuts a day is positively associated with better mental functioning, including improved thinking, reasoning and memory. Nuts, including peanuts, contain beneficial fats, protein and fibre as well as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects which may help to alleviate cognitive decline (1).
Have a Nice Cup of Tea – a research study on the effects of tea on elderly Chinese people found that tea drinking reduces the risk of cognitive impairment in older people by 50% and as much as 86% for those who are genetically at risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It does not seem to matter whether the tea is green, black or oolong as long as it is brewed from tea leaves. The beneficial effects of tea are most likely due to the bioactive compounds in tea leaves, such as catechins and L-theanine. These compounds have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant potential and other bioactive properties that may protect the brain from vascular damage and neurodegeneration (5).
Take Ginkgo biloba – a herb that improves circulation to the brain and may boost memory and cognitive function.
Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all – drink no more than 21 units per week.
Foods to Avoid or Reduce
Diet drinks – people who drink diet soda are almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia when compared to those who do not. Diet drinks contain artificial sweeteners which have been shown to have negative effects on health and weight possibly through their effects on the gut microbiome and appetite mechanisms (6).
Sugar – Alzheimer’s disease is sometimes referred to as type 3 diabetes as it is linked to high blood sugar levels (7). Frequent drinking of sugary drinks leads to poorer memory and smaller brain volume and a significantly smaller hippocampus – an area of the brain important for learning and memory. These are all risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Reduce sugar from soft drinks, snacks, fast foods, processed foods and refined carbohydrates.
AGEs – these are Advanced Glycation End Products. We naturally produce them in our bodies as well as getting them from our food. However in large amounts they can cause damage to body tissues and cells, including those in the brain. Foods that are low in AGEs include fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, tempeh and tofu. Dietary AGEs mainly come from processed foods, meat and heated fats. Cooking food at high temperatures, such as roasting, grilling, frying and barbecuing all increase AGEs in food. Cooking with water and at lower temperatures for shorter periods is less likely to lead to the formation of AGEs. Marinating food in acids such as vinegar or lemon juice can reduce AGE production during cooking.
See also blog post 13 Lifestyle Tips to Protect Brain Health for more ideas.
- Li M, Shi Z. A Prospective Association of Nut Consumption with Cognitive Function in Chinese Adults Aged 55 _ China Health and Nutrition Survey. The journal of nutrition, health & aging, 2018; 23 (2): 211
- Dementia prevention, intervention and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. Schneider L et al. The Lancet.
- Comparing the Effects of Low-Protein and High-Carbohydrate Diets and Caloric Restriction on Brain Aging in Mice” Wahl D et al. Cell Reports. Nov. 20 2018.
- Ann Clin Transl Neurol.2017 Jun 21;4(8):564-574. eCollection 2017 Aug. Extra-virgin olive oil ameliorates cognition and neuropathology of the 3xTg mice: role of autophagy. Lauretti E et al.
- Feng L et al. Tea consumption reduces the incidence of neurocognitive disorders: Findings from the Singapore longitudinal aging study. The journal of nutrition, health & aging, 2016; 20 (10): 1002
- Pase MP et al. Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia: A Prospective Cohort Study. Stroke, April 2017
- Pase MP et al. Sugary beverage intake and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease in the community. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 2017;