Often times, when you think about the food that you should be eating, you naturally think about what is best for the body and rarely focus on foods that can boost your mental health. Max Lugavere, author of Genius Foods, strongly believes that if you incorporate key foods into your regular diet you can help maintain and even boost your brain health. According to Lugavere, “The changes in the brain begin decades before the first symptom of mental decline is detected.”
It’s never too late—or early—to start considering the right food choices for the mind and body.
Diseases that destroy the brain can range from Alzheimer’s to dementia, which are not curable. However, some evidence has shown that making smart lifestyle choices early on can potentially delay the onset of these diseases. It’s important to keep in mind that in some instances there is a strong connection between genetics and neurodegenerative diseases. Regardless, it’s never a bad idea to opt for foods that will support your life in a healthy and holistic way.
So, what are genius foods exactly? The good news is that these foods are easily accessible and affordable. Experts share their take on what you should be consuming to keep your brain sharp.
At the top of the list in this category are berries, including blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. “In a prospective study, greater intakes of berries were associated with slower rates of cognitive decline in older women,” says Carolina Guizar, MS, RDN, CDN and founder of Eathority. The importance of berries is supported by Rachel Paul, PhD, RD from CollegeNutritionist.com. “Blueberries give the body an immunity boost. They contain nearly ¼ of a person’s daily recommended vitamin C,” shares Paul. Boosting your immune system can significantly support brain health by decreasing the risk of depression. Plus, it may even delay brain aging while improving cognitive function.
Almonds are a potent brain food. They are a powerful source of a fat-soluble, antioxidant vitamin E, which protects the synaptic membranes from oxidation supporting neuroplasticity. This is the brain’s neurons’ ability to compensate for injury and disease and adjust in new environmental situations. “Almonds are high in vitamin E and monounsaturated fats. Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that can help neutralize free radicals that may damage artery walls and the membranes of brains cells (the wall of the cell). Vitamin E may also enhance memory by increasing specific neurotransmitters (messenger released by neurons/brain cells that communicate with other neurons) in the brain,” says Guizar. She suggests consuming a ¼ cup of almonds per day. It will provide 50 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of vitamin E.
Max considers avocados the perfect food to enhance and protect your brain, as they have the highest total fat-protecting capacity of any fruit or vegetable. “Because avocados are rich in monounsaturated fat it helps to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol in the body, which decreases the risk of clogged arteries and promotes proper blood flow to the brain,” shares Guizar.
In addition, avocados provide twice the amount of potassium than a banana does. This makes it the better food option if you had to choose between the two. Potassium works with sodium to regulate blood pressure. It is essential for vascular health and ideal for lowering the risk of vascular dementia. This is a common form of dementia due to the impairment of blood flow to the brain.
Dark, Leafy Greens
Don’t deny your brain and body the benefits of vegetables. “Any dark, leafy green is going to be nutrient dense, so kale, spinach, and arugula are my favorites,” says Lugavere. “Rush University Research[er] Martha Clare Morris found that people who eat a large bowl of dark, leafy greens every single day have brains that look up to 11 years younger, on scans and on cognitive tests.” Dark, leafy greens are low in sugar and packed with minerals, vitamins, and other phytonutrients that the brain needs to function properly.
Folate and magnesium, some of the solid nutrients found in dark, leafy greens, each offer specific benefits. Folate is highly recognized for its ability to prevent neural tube birth defects. Meanwhile, magnesium is considered a macro-mineral that helps to generate energy and repair damaged DNA.
Beef from healthy cows has a tremendous amount of benefits. Grass-fed beef comes from cows that have been able to pasture and naturally feed on grass. Nutrients found in this animal protein include iron, zinc, Omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, vitamin E, and creatine. Deficiencies in any of these micronutrients have been linked to brain-related disorders. These include a low IQ, autism, depression, and dementia. When purchasing beef, make sure that it is clearly labeled “100 percent grass-fed” and, ideally, it should also be organic.
A great deal of research supports the role of Omega-3 fats in improved brain health, including learning and memory. “The human body cannot generate Omega-3s, so we have to ingest them in the form of food or supplements. Deficiencies in Omega-3s have been associated with mental conditions, such as depression and dementia,” shares Guizar. Salmon is particularly abundant in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an Omega-3 fat that is widely found in brain cell membranes. When you ingest enough of this fat it helps to ensure that the brain cell structures and the synapses between them remain stable and healthy. Wild salmon is also low in mercury and rich in astaxanthin. This is a carotenoid that is beneficial to the entire body. It can help boost cognitive function and promote neurogenesis.
Eggs pack an immense amount of benefits and nutrients. Long gone are the days where you need to be mindful of the number of eggs that you consume in fear of creating a high cholesterol level, shares Lugavere. In fact, it is encouraged to eat eggs—the entire egg—liberally and regularly. Eggs boost cognitive function and are essential for cardiovascular health. They contain just about every mineral required of the human body including:
- Vitamins A, B12, and E
If possible, when purchasing eggs, stick to pasture raised, free-range, Omega-3 enriched, and conventional eggs.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is a staple in many diets, including the Mediterranean diet. There has been a connection to people who consume these kinds of diets and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in the compound oleocanthal. This is a type of phenol plant that helps to stimulate the human body. It also contains anti-inflammatory effects. When there is inflammation in the body you can experience adverse effects, like depression, because the life of the brain cells is disrupted.
This oil option is also rich in monounsaturated fat and vitamin E, which protects the fatty structures of your body, including the brain.
Dark chocolate is rich in flavanols. This is a type of polyphenol (a micronutrient that we get through plant-based foods). Specifically, cocoa flavanols have been shown to reverse the signs of cognitive aging and improve both vascular function and blood flow to the brain.
It’s easy to cook with dark chocolate regularly, says Paul. “Melt dark chocolate in the microwave for 30-60 seconds (depending on your microwave). Line a small cookie sheet with parchment paper. Lay two cups of blueberries on top and drizzle the chocolate over them. Add coconut flakes, if you like. Freeze overnight and then keep in a glass container or plastic bag (in the freezer) for a fun snack or treat,” she suggests. Or, pop a square as a post-dinner indulgence.
You may be surprised to discover that you are already consuming many of these brain power foods. Continue to incorporate these must-haves in order to give your brain the power and strength that it needs.