Foods to eat for brain health

Foods for Brain Health: Nourishing Your Mind

Nutrition for your brain

Have you ever wondered if the foods you eat can help to keep your brain healthy?  Well you’re in the right place!  We are learning more and more about how eating well can impact your brain.  Two major areas we know about are depression, and cognitive decline.  Side note, our cognition is how we think, problem solve, remember, etc., so cognitive decline is when you have trouble with these things.  Of course, these two areas of mental health are really complicated and involve so much more than just a healthy diet.  But now, more than ever, we are learning that part of keeping our brain healthy is to be sure to eat a balanced, nutritious diet.  Read on to learn more about how you can eat well to support your brain and mental health. 

Looking for brain food?

For decades now, doctors, dietitians, and scientists all over the world have talked about the great effects of the Mediterranean Diet.  We know that this diet – rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, nuts, and olive oil – supports a healthy heart, prevents certain types of cancer, and is even recommended for people with diabetes.  So it is no surprise to hear that this same style of eating is healthy for our brains too.  

When scientists looked at how diet might impact people’s brains, they found patterns in people who ate more foods within the Mediterranean diet. This meant that those who ate more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes and olive oil, were less likely to have cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s Disease (2,3).  This same style of eating may even benefit those with depression(1).  Researchers also found that those who ate more sugary, processed or high fat foods were more at risk for these conditions. 

Mind on the Mediterranean

To be honest, the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ has become a bit of a buzzword these days. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with it, but through my work as a dietitian, I see first hand that we don’t always know how to put this style of eating into action.  While this article will give a good start on food ideas, stay in touch to keep learning how to make this fit into your life.  

Some of the highlights of the Mediterranean-style eating for brain health include:

  • Plenty of vegetables, and fruit – the more colorful, the better, especially those dark, leafy green veggies
  • Include a variety of whole grains – and leave out the highly processed or refined grains, and sugary foods 
  • Enjoy healthy fats in the form of fish, nuts, avocado, seeds, and olive oil
  • Boost the beans, lentils and other legumes in your diet, while cutting back on red meat
  • If you drink alcohol, enjoy in moderation

Don’t stress the superfoods

While it can be easy to focus on a few exciting ‘super-foods’, eating well for brain health goes beyond just a few special ingredients.  Using the Mediterranean style of eating as a guide, we can focus on changing our approach to eating – over time, of course!  And the key here is focusing on keeping our brains as healthy, with food and nutrition as just one piece of the puzzle.

This can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re just starting out. If you’re not too sure how to make sense of this all, here are a few tips to try, keeping in mind there are so many more ideas out there too.

Small steps to nourish your brain:

  • Vegetables and Fruit
    • Try adding vegetables to your usual favorites dishes like soups, casseroles, scrambled eggs, pizza
    • For inspiration, check out these recipes for Egg Bites & Mini Pizzas
  • Swap Whole Grains in for refined, high sugar foods 
    • Get started by mixing whole grains in half way, like half wild or brown rice with regular white rice, half whole grain pasta with regular white pasta, or half whole grain bread with white bread in sandwiches.  Eventually, work up to entirely whole grains
    • Instead of sugary breakfast cereal, try oatmeal with dried fruit for natural sweetness
    • Get adventurous with your side dishes and experiment with whole grains you may not have tried like: amaranth, quinoa, or bulgur. If you’re not sure how, check out this great article.
  • Healthy fats can leave you satisfied and support your brain
    • Swap out your usual deli meat for canned, low sodium salmon
    • Add nuts to your snack mix
    • Swap out butter for olive oil when cooking foods in your frying pan  
  • Less red meat, more legumes
    • Try a ‘meatless Monday’ (or any other day of the week, really), and explore cooking with more legumes or pulses (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, etc.) 
    • If you’re not ready for an entirely meatless meal, that’s okay!  There’s no shame in going halfway here, so try this: mix half ground beef with cooked lentils in a spaghetti sauce, sloppy joe’s, or meatloaf

Stay mindful of moderation

Enjoying our ‘treat’ foods in moderation is a realistic way to approach life-long healthy eating.  Anyone who has worked with me can vouch that I’m not a big fan of cutting out foods completely.   With that said, it is important to point out that when we think of foods affecting brain health, scientists did find a few foods that we should eat less of.   

There is a strong link between eating “refined sugars” and processed foods and a higher risk for depression (1).  Refined sugars and processed foods can include foods like sugary cereals, candy, pop, fast foods, processed meats (bacon, ham, sausage, deli meats, etc.), and deep fried foods.  If these show up on your plate pretty often, rather than trying to cut everything out today, think of one or two things you may be ready to swap out, even if it’s just one or two times a week.  

For example, let’s say you enjoy a few cans of pop each day.  While it might be tempting to say “I’m never drinking pop again”, that can be really hard to put into action.  Instead, consider switching one can of pop to regular or sparkling water, just one or two days of the week.  Work up to less and less, and over time, you’ll have a new healthy habit.  

Eating well to keep your brain healthy

After reading this you may be thinking, ‘this nutrition advice all sounds familiar’, and you’re not wrong.  All of the advice we know right now, about foods to avoid or include for brain health, is going to support a healthy body and prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, or heart disease too.  

Focusing on the big picture of a healthy lifestyle that includes a Mediterranean style of eating, moving your body, cooking at home and sharing meals with others are all important to support a healthy brain (2).  And of course, there are many other factors to brain health and mental illness.  Eating well does not replace the medications you may be taking to support your mental health, nor does it replace one-on-one therapy or treatment with a mental health professional.   

In the world of mental health, diet may not always be the topic of discussion.  And, what’s more, it can be really difficult to eat healthy, when your brain is not functioning at its best. What is exciting though is that we have another ‘tool in the toolbox’ to help build and maintain a healthy brain.  Talk to your health care team to learn more about how to create a plan that’s right for you.

*Note: this article is intended for general purposes only, and is not intended to replace individual medical or health advice from a regulated health professional or mental health provider.  Please seek one-on-one support for specific health concerns with your trusted health care provider.

If you’re keen on the science and want to know more, check out these references:

  1. Jacka FN, O’Neil A, Opie R, Itsiopoulos C, Cotton S, Mohebbi M, Castle D, Dash S, Mihalopoulos C, Chatterton ML, Brazionis L, Dean OM, Hodge AM, Berk M. (2017). A randomized controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial).  BioMed Central Medicine 15:23
  2. Aridi, YS , Walker, JL, Wright, ORL. (2017). The Association between the Mediterranean Dietary Pattern and Cognitive Health: A Systematic Review.  Nutrients: 9:674-97.
  3. Van den Brink AC, Bouwer-Brolsma EM, Merendsen AAM, van de Rest O. (2019). The Mediterranean, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), and Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diets are Associated with Less Cognitive Decline and a Lower Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease – A Review.   Advances in Nutrition, Vol 10, Iss 6:1040-1065.