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by Nissa Simon
Updated Sep 28, 2022
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.
• “Berry Fruit Enhances Beneficial Signaling in the Brain,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, January 2012. In this review, researchers analyze multiple studies showing that eating berries can have a positive effect on the brain. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Avocado Consumption Increases Macular Pigment Density in Older Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial,” Nutrients, August 2017. In this study, 40 older adults were randomly split into two groups. One group ate one avocado a day for six months while the other group ate either one potato or one cup of chickpeas a day for six months. After six months, researchers measured participants’ lutein levels and cognition. Results showed that participants who ate one avocado a day experienced an increase in lutein levels in the brain as well as improvements in working memory and problem solving. Read the full study.
• “Folate, Vitamin B-6, and Vitamin B-12 Intake and Mild Cognitive Impairment and Probable Dementia in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study,” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, February 2015. For this study, researchers compared the number of cases of mild cognitive impairment and probable dementia in 7,030 postmenopausal women (ages 65 – 79) who consumed different levels of folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. Results showed that consumption of folate below the recommended levels was associated with an increased risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Oral intake of a specific oregano extracts increases α1, β1 waves and P300 amplitude in brains of healthy human subjects indicative of increased calmness, vigilance and mental processing speed,” Society for Neuroscience, October 2012. In this study, researchers investigated the effects of oregano extract on the brain function of 20 healthy young men. Results showed that oral intake of oregano extract led to increased relaxation, improved concentration and increased mental capacity. Read the presentation.
• “Regular Fish Consumption and Age-Related Brain Gray Matter Loss,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, October 2014. For this study, researchers compared the brain volumes measured by MRI of 260 older adults (age 65 and above) who consumed different amounts of fish. Results showed that participants who consumed baked or broiled fish on a weekly basis had larger gray matter volumes in portions of the brain commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “A cross sectional study of the association between walnut consumption and cognitive function among adult US populations represented in NHANES,” The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, December 2014. In this study, researchers compared the cognitive function of participants who reported consuming walnuts with those who did not report consuming nuts. Two different age groups were analyzed: 5,662 adults ages 20 – 59 and 5,054 adults age 60 and older. In both age groups, walnut consumption was linked with improved cognitive function. As a population study, this research does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• “Effects of peppermint and cinnamon odor administration on simulated driving alertness, mood and workload,” North American Journal of Psychology, June 2009. In this study, researchers exposed participants to the smell of cinnamon, peppermint or no scent while they were monitored during a driving simulation. Results showed that when exposed to the cinnamon and peppermint odors, participants were more alert and less frustrated. Read a summary of the study.
• “Cognitive enhancement through stimulation of the chemical senses,” North American Journal of Psychology, January 2005. In this study, researchers conducted two experiments to investigate the effect of different flavored chewing gums and smells on cognitive performance. During the first experiment, 31 participants performed a cognitive task while chewing flavorless gum, peppermint gum, cinnamon gum, cherry gum or not chewing gum at all. During the second experiment, 39 participants completed the same cognitive task while exposed to no odor, peppermint odor, jasmine odor or cinnamon odor. Results showed that both the cinnamon chewing gum and cinnamon odor improved participants’ attention, virtual recognition memory, working memory and response time. Read a summary of the study.
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