This past Thursday we spent the entire day listening to the latest research on brain health as it relates to mood, metabolism and cognition, hosted by the Institute of Natural Resources.
It’s such an important topic and one that is relevant to literally everyone, whether you have a loved one struggling with memory decline or you are looking to prevent memory loss yourself.
The big takeaway is this: Research is very strong that lifestyle habits can play a huge preventative role in cognitive health or decline.
The seminar covered a host of topics, but for today we are going to focus on the diet piece.
For starters, it’s probably no surprise that our Western Diet (WD), heavy in fried, processed, and sugary foods, has been associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. We know these types of inflammatory foods cause damage to the heart and arteries, so it makes sense that it would also affect the capillaries in the brain as well, and that is exactly what the studies are revealing.
On the flip side, a quality whole foods diet can actually have a positive impact on brain structure and function.
That’s right. The same type of diet that can heal your heart is also amazing for brain health. A diet rich in healthy whole foods can literally strengthen and preserve something known as the blood brain barrier (BBB), a filtering mechanism of the capillaries that carry blood to the brain and spinal cord tissue.
The BBB’s function is to protect the brain from “foreign substances” in the blood that may injure the brain, while at the same time let in the nutrients that the brain needs to function optimally.
In fact, studies using the Mediterranean diet have shown improvements in cognitive function, slower rates of cognitive decline, and reduced rate of Alzheimer’s.
There has also been a lot of buzz around another type of eating plan called the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay).
This diet emphasizes eating from 10 brain healthy food groups, which include strong representation from green leafy veggies, all other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine.
Here are some of our favorite brain-boosting protective foods (be sure to check out the recipes below too).
Leafy greens get an A+ when it comes to brain health. Study results suggest that people who eat even one serving of green, leafy vegetables a day may experience a slower rate of decline on tests of memory and thinking skills than people who rarely or never eat them. To boot, older adults who eat at least one serving of leafy green vegetables show an equivalent of being 11 years younger cognitively. Read more about leafy greens and how to fit them into your daily diet right HERE.
Berries, including blueberries, cherries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are also brain stars. That’s because they contain high levels of antioxidants, (you know, those compounds that protect cells from damage by harmful free radicals).
Berries have been shown to actually change the way neurons in the brain communicate. These changes in signaling can prevent inflammation in the brain that contribute to neuronal damage and improve both motor control and cognition.
Spices such as ginger, garlic, coriander, clove, licorice, cinnamon, turmeric, red and black pepper have active components, called nutraceuticals, that target inflammatory pathways thereby potentially preventing neurodegenerative diseases. We LOVE using spices in our dishes and its especially satisfying when we know they are contributing not only to flavor but our health as well.
Cacao’s established cardiovascular benefits has warranted a bunch of research into its effect on the brain as well. The bean is extremely rich in specific anti-oxidants called flavonoids that penetrate and accumulate in the regions of the brain that are in involved in learning and memory, particularly the hippocampus. There have been positive animal studies demonstrating protective effects of long term flavanol consumption on neurocognition and behavior.
Music to our ears! Be sure to get very dark chocolate though – which has the highest percentage of cacao to least amount of added sugar. Our favorite is Endangered Species 88% but you might have to work up to it. 72% is a good place to start. We share even more info and recipes with dark chocolate HERE.
Pretty exciting right? Just keep in mind that no ONE food is the be-all end all. It’s the overall diet and lifestyle that makes the biggest difference.
Below we share our Turmeric Smoothie Bowl which contains three of the four brain boosting foods mentioned above (honorary mention goes to the almond butter). FYI this is a smoothie BOWL so its supposed to be thick and eaten with a spoon. Adjust the liquid as needed.
Spiced Cherry Greens Smoothie Bowl
- 1/3 -1/2 cup coconut or almond milk, unsweetened
- 2 cups spinach or other greens
- ¼ frozen banana
- ½ cup frozen cherries
- 1 tablespoon almond butter
- ½ teaspoon each ground turmeric, cinnamon and ginger
- 2 tablespoons unflavored protein powder (optional, for added protein)
- 3-5 ice cubes*
- Toppings of choice: 1 Tbs flaked coconut, 1 Tbs crushed nuts or seeds, ¼ cup of berries
*We like to use coconut or almond milk cubes; just freeze the milk in ice cube trays and add to smoothies.