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by Nissa Simon
Updated April 19, 2023
Small changes to your diet could support your brain health. Good nutrition is essential to optimal brain function. Research has found that certain plant compounds, amino acids, vitamins and minerals found in food can help protect memory, regulate emotions and control blood sugar. Research says these everyday food switches may help support your body, your mind and your mood.
1. Sweeten plain yogurt with blueberries instead of sugar.
Powerful plant compounds found in blueberries may help bolster memory. Two of these — lutein and zeaxanthin — have been linked to sharper thinking and faster learning. A study from the University of Georgia took the research a step further by tracking blood flow in the brains of 43 older adults asked to recall pairs of words. Surprisingly, the brains of those with lower lutein and zeaxanthin levels went into concentration-busting overdrive while those with higher levels worked efficiently, the researchers reported in 2016 in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
“The body doesn’t make these vital nutrients naturally, so we have to get them from our diet,” says neuropsychologist L. Stephen Miller, the study’s coauthor.
Sugar? Not so good. It doesn’t add much, nutritionally, except for calories.
2. Grab a handful of cashews instead of pretzels.
This creamy nut provides tryptophan, an amino acid that the brain uses to manufacture serotonin, a major contributor to a good mood. Also, the nut’s high levels of magnesium and vitamin B6 help keep your emotions on an even keel. “Although cashews are high in calories,” says Penn State University nutritionist Penny Kris-Etherton, “they can be a brain-healthy addition to your diet as long as you use them in place of, not in addition to, other snacks.”
Pretzels? These snacks come up short on the healthy-food scoreboard — low in protein and fiber, high in sodium and refined carbs.
3. Make an omelet with whole eggs instead of just the whites.
Egg yolks are packed with choline, an essential nutrient related to the B vitamins. An analysis published in 2022 of the long-running Framingham Heart Study, including more than 3,200 adults, found those with low choline intake had a higher risk of dementia than those with medium intake. Earlier research that was also a part of the Framingham Heart Study found a correlation between those who eat foods rich in choline and better performance on memory tests. “We can’t guarantee that if you get enough choline in your diet you’ll stave off memory loss and keep your thinking skills intact,” says Boston University neuropsychologist Rhoda Au, an author of both studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “but it sure tilts the odds in your favor.”
Egg whites? Although they are much lower in fat than yolks and contain about half of the egg’s protein, they only have trace amounts of minerals, so you are missing out if you skip the yellows.
4. Use mashed avocados in a sandwich instead of mayonnaise.
This pale-green fruit is a good source of several B vitamins that affect mood and memory, and some that may help prevent anxiety and irritability. “Avocados also provide lutein, a nutrient that’s important for brain health as well as eye health,” says Tufts University neuropsychologist Tammy Scott.
Mayonnaise? Tasty and smooth but loaded with fat, sodium and calories.
5. Choose whole grain bread instead of enriched white bread.
Your brain can’t work without energy. Whole grains provide the brain with a steady supply of energy in the form of glucose, which makes it easier to concentrate and keep your thinking in good shape. Not a fan of whole wheat bread? Try rye or bread made with other whole grains. Just make sure the first ingredient on the label says “100 percent whole grain.”
Enriched white bread? It’s pretty weak on the nutrition front. As the American Heart Association notes, “enriched” means some nutrients have been added back after processing, but that might not include dietary fiber, found in whole grains. Dietary fiber is important in lowering cholesterol and risk of stroke. It even makes you feel full faster, so you’ll eat less.
6. Top your salad with a handful of chickpeas instead of croutons.
Chickpeas (a.k.a. garbanzo beans) combine complex carbs to fuel your brain and protein to keep you alert. They’re also a great source of magnesium, believed to be the go-to mineral for controlling stress and promoting calmness. If you don’t get enough magnesium in your diet, you’re likely to feel stressed in what’s been called a vicious circle — a decades-old theory revisited in a 2020 report in Nutrients that explores how stress might also cause magnesium loss.
Croutons? They don’t have much going for them. A few might be OK for an occasional crunchy treat, but they’re high in fat and sodium.