7 Food Choices to Support Brain Health

Don’t have time to create a healthy meal? You can make these simple diet changes in a jiffy


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Healthy foods can help support brain function. You know the drill: plenty of green leafy vegetables, fruit, whole grains and healthy fats. But what if you’re on the run and don’t have the time to sit down to three square meals a day? You’re in luck. You can make small changes to your diet that have a major impact on brain health.

Boston University nutrition professor Joan Salge Blake always carries a small tin of almonds in her briefcase or purse. “They’re my go-to snack, no matter where I am,” she says. “When I’m hungry, I just reach for a few almonds and don’t have to think about searching out something healthy at a nearby convenience store.”

Healthy choices benefit more than your brain. “If you make these kinds of small changes in what you eat and make them a habit, you’ll benefit not only your brain but the rest of your body, as well,” says Pennsylvania State University nutritionist Penny Kris-Etherton. But she cautions that there’s more to good brain health than just food. “It’s not about nutrition alone; it’s the whole package of healthy living — eat well, exercise, don’t smoke, and control blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure.”

Here are seven small tweaks that you can do in a fraction of the time it would take you to order takeout.

1. Stockpile packages of strawberries and blueberries in your freezer.

“They’re washed, they’re clean, they’re ready to go, and there’s no work involved,” Salge Blake says. Add some to your smoothie mix in the morning and put a handful into your water bottle before you head out the door.

What's in it for you? Strawberries and blueberries contain high levels of antioxidants, compounds that may help support brain health. They also change the way nerve cells in the brain communicate; these changes improve both thinking skills and muscle control, according to an article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

2. Slather avocado on your toast.

This pale green silky treat is perfect any time of day, from breakfast to bedtime. Peel and remove the pit from a ripe avocado, add a pinch of sea salt, a bit of lemon or lime juice, and a few drops of olive oil. Mash with a fork until it’s chunky or smooth, based on your preference, and spread on a piece of toast.

What's in it for you? Avocados are a good source of lutein, a nutrient that's important for brain health as well as eye health. A study published in the journal Nutrients found that healthy adults who ate an avocado every day for six months increased lutein levels in their eyes; they also significantly improved their working memory (remembering what you wanted to buy at the market or what you had planned for the afternoon) and problem-solving ability.

3. Add onions to stew.

No matter how you slice or dice them, onions are a cooking basic; it’s the rare kitchen that doesn't have some on hand. Onions bring out the depth and flavor in stews and add oomph to an otherwise bland mix of ingredients, from scrambled eggs to baked chicken. To smooth out the sharp flavor of raw onions, sauté them gently before using.

What's in it for you? Onions are rich in B vitamins, particularly B6 and folate. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that women who didn’t get sufficient folate in their diets were more likely to experience a decline in mental awareness and judgment as they aged. Vitamin B6 helps the body make the hormones serotonin and norepinephrine, which influence mood.

4. Sprinkle oregano into your spaghetti sauce.

Whether fresh or dried, oregano perks up the flavor of tomato-based dishes. In addition to spaghetti sauce, it’s great with pizza, tomato soup, eggplant Parmesan and tomato salad. But don’t stop there. Oregano is the perfect addition to Mediterranean and Mexican cooking, so enjoy it with beans, cheese and eggs.

What's in it for you? Oregano may help you think more clearly. According to research presented at a conference of the Society for Neuroscience, compounds in this tasty herb increase brain waves associated with relaxation and concentration. There’s more: Experts note that some of oregano’s components may help with depression, and others may relieve fatigue and anxiety.

5. Prepare more salmon than you need for one meal.

After you’ve heated the broiler or fired up the grill, cook an extra portion of salmon for each person. “The recommended two servings of fish a week doesn’t mean you have to make two dinners,” Salge Blake says. “Sometimes that’s just too much to fit into your schedule. If you use the leftovers in a lunch salad the next day,” she says, “you’ll have your weekly two servings with no extra work.”

What’s in it for you? Fatty fish such as wild salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring and sardines play a starring role when it comes to good-for-your-brain food. Indeed, scientists have linked the consumption of these fish — rich in omega-3 fatty acids — to several brain-healthy benefits, including improved memory and learning ability and reduced rates of dementia.

6. Add chopped walnuts to your breakfast oatmeal.

You may have hated oatmeal as a kid, calling it mushy, tasteless and boring. With age, however, you’ve realized the wisdom of eating a nourishing bowl of oatmeal each morning. But how do you deal with mushy, tasteless and boring?  Simple, says Penn State’s Kris-Etherton. “Spike the flavor with a bit of brown sugar or maple syrup, mix in some frozen berries and toss on a handful of toasted chopped walnuts for a pleasantly surprising crunch.”

What’s in it for you? Walnuts may help enhance memory, concentration and your brain’s reaction time. A large-scale study from the University of California, Los Angeles, concluded that less than a handful each day could provide these benefits regardless of age, gender or ethnic background.

7. Stir your coffee with a cinnamon stick.

What can be more inviting than the scent of cinnamon? We add it to cookie batter and applesauce, sprinkle it on toast and use a stick to stir hot apple cider. If you haven’t tried it in coffee, now’s the time. Use a cinnamon stick to stir a mug of hot coffee, or add some ground cinnamon to turn a ho-hum cup of joe into a gourmet treat.

What’s in it for you? Simply smelling this sweet spice may help improve brain function. Specifically, the scent of cinnamon lowered frustration and increased alertness among participants in a simulated driving test. The aroma of cinnamon also improved attention, reasoning and memory, according to research presented at a meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences.

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