You are what you eat, so the saying goes, and when it comes to looking after your brain health, this is no exception. In fact, of all the lifestyle factors that affect our brain health, the food we eat is the one we have the most control over. Scientific research increasingly emphasises that a healthy, balanced diet is crucial for a healthy brain both in the short term (for day-to-day cognitive function) and in the long-term (potentially preventing the development of brain diseases).
There are many reasons for this:
The 2017 AARP Brain Health Survey – which surveyed more than 1,000 adults aged 50 years and over in the U.S. – revealed that 75% of those who reported they ate well between five and seven days per week rated their brain health and mental sharpness as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. But among those who said they rarely or never ate well, only around 40% reported their level of brain health as high.
We know that food is fuel – and this is particularly the case when it comes to the brain. Despite only accounting for just 2% of your body weight, the brain accounts for 20% of the body’s energy use. When we eat, nutrients from the food are carried to the brain through the bloodstream. These nutrients undertake a host of activities within the brain and the rest of the body. For optimal brain health, research shows we need a regular consumption of healthy fats, sufficient amounts of certain vitamins and minerals and also compounds derived from plants called polyphenols.
Separately, each of the three components will have a beneficial effect. But together, gleaned in sufficient amounts through a brain-healthy diet, they may work together to amplify the beneficial effects on the brain.
So why are each of these so important?
So which foods should we be eating regularly to keep our brains healthy – and which are best avoided?
A landmark report compiled by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent panel of scientists, doctors, academics and policy experts which provides trusted information on how to maintain and improve brain health, delivered several key findings.
A diet that’s good for the heart is also good for the brain.
This is because conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes contribute to the damage of tiny blood vessels in the brain as well as elsewhere in the body and can be exacerbated by diets high in saturated fat, refined sugars and damaging chemicals – such as alcohol. Furthermore, they also contribute to the level of inflammation in the brain. Such diets have also been linked with lower cortical thickness – thickness in the layers of the brain – which has been associated with having a negative impact on brain health and the occurrence of dementia later in life.
No single food acts as a silver bullet for improving or maintaining brain health.
The combination of different types of food and nutrients together in our diets likely determines health benefits. Indeed, there are various brain-healthy diet plans that have made the headlines over the past few years.
The most well-known are the Mediterranean diet; the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) - which focuses on decreasing portion size and salt intake; and the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) - a combination of the two.
The Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets have been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia later in life from anywhere between 20% and 50% and have many foods in common.
They all encourage a high intake of fruit, vegetables, oily fish and whole grains (such as oats, brown rice, wholegrain pasta), which are an important source of B vitamins, fibre and polyphenols.
They also advise a high intake of unsaturated fatty acids (particularly monosaturated fats such as those found in nuts, rapeseed oil and extra virgin olive oil, which also contains polyphenols) and other polyphenol-containing foods/beverages and a moderate wine and coffee/tea intake.
Importantly, they all advise cutting back on red meat and refined grains such as white rice, bread and sugar.
In its landmark report, the Global Council for Brain Health made some key recommendations about what we should include in our diets. It grouped them into the following three categories:
1. Foods to be encouraged (i.e. eaten regularly)
2. Foods to be included
3. Foods that should be limited
As you will see, the groups broadly mirror the recommendations of the three popular diets mentioned above…
For many people, red wine is synonymous with the Mediterranean diet. But have its oft-touted health benefits been overstated? While there may be benefits due to the polyphenols found in the drink, for example red wine is high in flavonoids, what’s key is portion size and how often it’s consumed.
The Mediterranean and MIND diets typically include a moderate amount of wine – defined as no more than 148ml a day (that’s less than a standard 175ml serving in a pub, for example) for women and 296ml a day for men – consumed with a meal. Drinking any more than that could have a negative impact on your brain health.
It’s better news on this front. Several studies have suggested a link between drinking tea and coffee and a decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. The widely-held theory is that the polyphenols in tea and coffee may be the reason. However, the jury is still out on the exact amounts that could be beneficial for brain health.
Page Last Reviewed
Next Review Date
If you’re interested in learning more, you can sign up below to stay updated