How to improve brain health through nutrition.
This is part one, and in part two we’ll cover the equally impactful areas of exercise and lifestyle.
Brain health has been close to my heart ever since my wonderful nan began suffering with dementia.
She was only in her 60s.
I firmly believe that if my nan had information and guidance on protecting her brain when she was younger – through specific nutrition, exercise and lifestyle choices – things could have been very different. At the very least, it could have dramatically slowed the decline.
I wish I’d been able to give her that information when she needed it, in her 30s, 40s, and 50s, when it could have made a difference. And I wish I had been there to guide and encourage her to put that information into action. Those small daily choices that add up to life-altering results.
Dementia is now the leading cause of death in the UK – it kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
But there is so much we can do to protect, and even improve, the health of our brain.
My goal is to keep this post as simple and actionable as possible, so I’ve left out some of the science behind these recommendations. Rest assured they are well backed by research, and please email me if you’d like more information.
How to Improve Brain Health Through Nutrition
We all know we benefit from eating a healthy balanced diet…
But what does that actually look like?
Well, when it comes to looking after our brains, researchers now have a pretty good idea.
After comparing various different diets, they’ve created a fusion of two of the most healthy and brain-protecting ways we can eat – the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.
And they’ve called it the MIND diet.
Impressively, it appears that following the core principles of the MIND diet can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 53%.
Here are the suggested guidelines for it:
10 Groups of foods to include in the MIND Diet
– Whole grains — 3 or more servings per day
– Green leafy vegetables — 6 servings per week
– Other vegetables — 1 serving per day
– Nuts — 5 servings per week
– Berries — 2 or more servings per week
– Beans or legumes — 3 or more servings per week
– Fish — 1 or more serving per week
– Poultry — 2 or more servings per week
– Wine — 1 serving per day
– Olive oil — use as the main cooking oil
5 groups of foods to minimise in the MIND Diet
– Pastries and sweets — less than 5 servings per week
– Red meat — less than 4 servings per week
– Cheese — less than 1 serving per week
– Fried or fast food — less than 1 serving per week
– Butter and margarine — less than 1 tablespoon per day
Make a plan that works for you
Personally, from other research I’ve seen and experience with hundreds of clients, I would decrease the wholegrain recommendation to 1-2 x per day. In addition, it would be a great idea to increase ‘Other Vegetables’ to 3-5 servings per day.
Here’s what this could look like:
- A palm size serving of protein in each meal
- Fruit or veg as part of breakfast and lunch (for example, this could be berries at breakfast, and a veg-filled soup, an apple or veg sticks with hummus at lunch. Another option for lunch could be leftover dinner that had plenty of vegetables in it)
- Half a plate of vegetables at dinner (aiming to include dark green veg a few times a week, plus other colours)
- 2-3 healthy fats in the day (salmon, other oily fish, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, eggs are all great sources)
- 2-3 servings of carbohydrates – depending on your goals and how active you are (wholegrains, beans, lentils, potatoes, oats are all good sources)
- a bit of anything else you love 2-3 times per week
If this seems like quite a challenge, or far away from how you currently eat, don’t panic!
While it’s great to aim for, you don’t need to eat this way every single day.
Heading towards it, perhaps by adding a healthy fat or an extra portion of veggies at dinner a few days each week, would still have a very positive effect over time.
Small changes add up.
How to Improve Brain Health: Brain-Boosting foods
Let’s look a little more closely at some key nutrients to support brain health.
Why are healthy fats so beneficial?
About 60% of the brain is made of fat, and half of that fat comes from omega 3 (a type that’s found in oily fish, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts).
Our brains use omega 3 to build brain and nerve cells, which are essential for learning, memory, and reducing our risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
We need a mix of the 3 different types of fat – saturated, polyunsaturated (this is omega 3), and monounsaturated, which all serve important functions in the body.
The foods in the infographic above are the best ones to look for.
Antioxidants are wonderful little molecules that fight free radicals in the body.
What are free radicals, I hear you ask?
Free radicals are compounds that are linked to various diseases. We produce them naturally (and they can be helpful) but they become harmful if they get too high.
So the more antioxidants you eat, the more ammunition you give your body to keep free radicals in check.
All whole foods that come from plants or animals contain antioxidants, but they’re found in abundance in fruits, vegetables and dark chocolate (hooray!).
Aim to include various colours of fruits and vegetables in your diet – a spectrum of colours gives you a spectrum of all the different vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that your body needs.
There is a lot of value in the saying ‘eat the rainbow’.
These are some of the very best antioxidant sources:
- dark chocolate (70% or above)
- red cabbage
- red or purple grapes
Brain Health Supplements
There are a couple of supplements with good research behind them for supporting the health of our brains – omega 3 and vitamin D.
If you eat less than 2 servings of oily fish each week, omega 3 fish oil can be well worth taking.
It has numerous potential benefits, including:
- improved blood flow to the brain
- protects against cognitive decline
- buffers inflammation
- reduces chronic pain (particularly from inflammatory conditions such as arthritis)
- can reduce symptoms of depression
What dosage is best?
It depends on your fish intake and your goals. For a general recommendation, 1000mg omega 3, and a combined EPA / DHA of 250mg or more (you can usually find this info on the packet) is good to look for.
This is taken directly from the Examine.com website (a great resource for looking at research behind various supplements):
Supplemental vitamin D is associated with a wide range of benefits, including increased cognition, immune health, bone health and well-being. Supplementation can also reduce the risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
We make vitamin D from the sun, so it’s particularly beneficial to supplement (in the UK at least) when the sun all but disappears between October and March.
When the sun does appear between March and October, short periods of sun exposure without sunscreen are recommended.
If you spend a lot of time indoors, or if you always wear sunscreen when out in the sun, it’s often beneficial to supplement all year round.
Similarly, during and after menopause, women can benefit from supplementing all year round, for a number of reasons:
- Vitamin D enables the body to convert calcium into bone, so is really important for protecting bone density.
- Vitamin D can improve mood, energy and well-being, all of which can be affected by fluctuating hormones.
- After menopause women lose the protective effects of estrogen, and become more at risk of diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Vitamin D, alongside good nutrition, exercise and a healthy lifestyle, can boost that protection back up.
Ideally it’s best to get your levels checked via a blood test, so you know the amount (if any) you need to supplement.
If you’re unable to get a test to check, 1000 IU is a good general dose.
How to Improve Brain Health Through Nutrition: Key points
To sum up, these are some key points to remember to optimise brain health through nutrition:
- Aim to eat a variety of whole, natural, minimally processed foods
- Different colours of fruit and veg provide different vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – see if you can add colour to your plate and ‘eat the rainbow’
- Regular protein helps maintain your body’s strength and health, which can have a positive impact on long term brain health too
- 2-3 healthy fats daily (in appropriate portion sizes) supports your brain and body
- Omega 3 and vitamin D can be two supplements worth taking
I haven’t mentioned water as that’s to come in the next post, but drinking enough water is a vital component of brain health too.
2-3 litres per day, or enough to ensure your urine is a very pale yellow, is a good amount to aim for.
Thanks for reading, and check out my next post for how to improve brain health through exercise and lifestyle.
If you’d like help putting these points into action (of if you have any other goals around health or weight loss), find out more about online coaching here: