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5 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 five small tweaks that you can do in a fraction of the time it would take you to order takeout.

1. Stockpile packages of berries 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, blueberries, blackberries and cranberries contain high levels of antioxidants, compounds that may support brain health. Studies have found that the fruits might protect against the effects of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, according to a 2021 review in Molecules that examined multiple studies on berries and health.

2. Slather avocado on your toast.

This pale green silky treat is perfect any time of day, from breakfast to bedtime. Peel a ripe avocado, remove the pit, and 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, whichever you prefer, and spread on a piece of toast.

What's in it for you? Besides being tasty, avocados are rich in dietary fiber, potassium and magnesium and are a good source of monounsaturated fatty acids. Among more than 110,400 adults followed over three decades, higher avocado consumption was associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. The study was published in 2022 in the Journal of the American Heart Association. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, says a 2020 report from the Global Council on Brain Health.

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. In an analysis that tracked 2,533 adults ages 50 to 70 for about two years, inadequate intake of B6 and folate was associated with worse cognitive function and memory compared with getting sufficient amounts of the vitamins, according to a study published in 2019 in Clinical Epigenetics.

4. 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, 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. Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids were linked with a larger hippocampus — a brain structure involved in memory — and better abstract thinking in a study reported in 2022 in Neurology examining 2,183 adults who participated in the long-running Framingham Heart Study.

5. Add chopped walnuts to your breakfast oatmeal.

You may have hated oatmeal as a kid, calling it mushy, tasteless and boring. By now, you’ve realized the wisdom of eating a nourishing bowl of oatmeal each morning. But how do you move away from 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 enhance memory and other cognitive functions, according to a 2020 review in Nutrients of multiple studies on how walnuts affect cognition and brain health. Like berries, walnuts also contain plenty of antioxidants as well as anti-inflammatory properties. Both may help protect the brain from dementia and other disorders and reduce the risk for cardiovascular diseases.

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