Typically, we eat with our body weight or heart health in mind, but research shows we should also be eating for our brains. It is now well known that our food choices influence our memory, mood, general cognitive skills and mental wellbeing.
“The foods we choose to eat provide the basic building blocks to keep our brain healthy,” Dr Jenny Brockis, the brain fitness doctor and author of Future Brain, told The Huffington Post Australia. “Right down to the cellular level, choosing the right foods makes a really important difference to how well our brain operates.
“If we don’t choose the right foods, we’re not going to have the right building blocks. That’s why things like omega-3 is so important, because every single cell membrane include a component that is provided by omega-3.
“If we don’t include that in our diet, our brain has to make do with alternatives which don’t provide the same flexibility for the membrane, so you don’t get the same level of function you would normally.”
However, it’s not just omega-3 rich foods that can promote healthy brain function.
“Omega-3 is an important component but not on its own,” Brockis said. “What makes the biggest difference to how well our brain operates overall is having a wide variety of different foods, but starting with predominantly vegetable or plant foods first.”
It’s for this reason that the Mediterranean diet -- rich in vegetables, fruit, lean protein and healthy fats -- is one of the best diets for optimal brain health.
“The top contender for boosting focus, memory and better cognition is the Mediterranean diet,” Brockis said. “It’s the one diet that has been the most extensively investigated and researched. The studies have shown it’s really good for a healthy brain, preserving memory and working better for longer.”
Before you decide to live off pizza and pasta from now on, hold up.
“Now not all Mediterranean food is healthy -- too much pasta and pizza is not overly healthy (although we wish it was),” Brockis said.
“The Mediterranean diet is predominantly plant-based and it’s got the seafood and olive oil which can be really helpful for brain function. It’s the variety of foods that are included in the Mediterranean diet that probably make it the best.”
However, there's a new kid on the block in terms of brain healthy diets. The MIND Diet, more recently developed specifically to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia, takes inspiration from the Mediterranean diet.
“The new MIND Diet has been put together by scientists in the States, which takes the best from the Mediterranean diet added to the DASH Diet, which was introduced to help reduce the risk of people developing high blood pressure (which is bad for our heart and our brain),” Brockis said.
“They have recommended 10 foods that are really brain healthy.”
1. Go green
“Six serves of leafy green vegetables every week is recommended,” Brockis said. “These include leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale and Asian and salad greens.”
2. More veggies
“They also say to have an additional serve every day of other vegetables that are not green and leafy, otherwise they tend to get forgotten,” Brockis said.
Include a wide variety of different coloured veggies on your plate -- carrots, capsicum, eggplant, pumpkin, just to name a few.
“It goes back to eating variety. Vegetables are a particularly nutritious food, but it’s also about mixing it up and not just relying on a particular vegetable -- it’s important to mix it up.”
“Nuts get a good look-in,” Brockis said. “Aim for five small handful of nuts every week.
“They’re a great snack because they tend to fill us up and are packed with good fats and vitamins, so even just eating six almonds is a great afternoon snack. It gives you that satiety feeling quite quickly.
“People worry about nuts making you fat but it’s hard to eat too many nuts, especially when you know a small handful is sufficient, and it’s much better than a doughnut,” Brockis said.
4. Berry delightful
“Berries are the best fruit to eat for brain health. Two or more serves a week of all the deeply coloured blue and red berries are particularly good for us,” Brockis told HuffPost Australia. “Berries are choc-a-block full of antioxidants.
“If we eat fruits with red skin, such as grapes, they have resveratrol in them, which is another powerful antioxidant very good for the brain. Resveratrol is what makes red wine red, and that’s why red wine is said to be better for us than white wine.”
“Beans -- kidney beans, black beans, lima beans -- are all really good for us,” Brockis said. “If we eat three serves a week then we’re doing well. They’re also high in fibre which is good for our gut.”
6. Whole grains
“Whole grains are good because they contain different vitamins. You could have oats, couscous, brown rice, rye and barley,” Brockis said. “Aim to have three servings of whole grains a day.”
7. Go fish
“Then you’ve got fish -- it’s got the highest content of omega-3 of all the foods available to us and it’s a lovely source of lean protein and healthy fats,” Brockis said.
“In a Mediterranean diet they suggest eating 3-4 servings a week which, for a lot of people, can be too much (and too expensive, which it is). On the MIND Diet they suggest only one serve a week, which is very doable.
“They have shown that fresh is best and, unfortunately, deep fried fish doesn’t really count, which is a shame. You can eat fish quite easily by having tinned salmon and tuna as an alternative.
"As long as we’re eating fish in our diets, that’s the main thing -- ideally the cold water, oily types of fish, such as salmon."
Don’t eat (or loathe) fish? Try these plant-based omega-3 rich foods instead.
“Things like flaxseed, walnuts and brussel sprouts are high in omega-3,” Brockis said.
“Brussel sprouts actually have the highest omega-3 equivalent content of all the vegetables. Some people will be happy about that, others will say, ‘Ugh, I hate brussel sprouts.’ But roasted brussel sprouts are nice -- I wish I discovered them a long time ago.”
“The next is poultry, things like chicken and turkey. We don’t eat a lot of turkey here in Australia but it’s recommended to eat it twice a week,” Brockis said. “It’s about having this variety and protein.”
9. Olive oil
“Next on the list is olive oil -- extra virgin olive oil, where you can,” Brockis said. “It’s great for healthy fats.”
Try using extra virgin olive oil for your salad dressings and in low-heat cooking.
10. Wine time
“Last but not least is one small glass of wine a day -- not the bottle!” Brockis said.
“It’s the antioxidant, resveratrol, in wine which makes it brain healthy. Antioxidants help keep the cells healthy and support healthy ageing.
“So you can enjoy wine and feel less guilty about a small glass.”
If you’re wondering what foods are not brain healthy, you have probably already guessed correctly.
“It’s the fried fast food, sweets and all the highly processed packaged food,” Brockis told HuffPost Australia. “These mass processed foods include a much higher level of trans fats, sugars and salt. It’s having an impact on how well our brains function.
“We don’t feel as well if we’re eating bad food -- we don’t feel as energetic, clear-thinking and it can often lower our mood,” Brockis said. “From that aspect it’s really important to take better care of our food choices in general.”
Feeling overwhelmed by the idea of following this brain healthy diet? Don’t worry, it’s all about taking small steps.
“It’s never too late. What we do today will have an impact on how well we are tomorrow, next week, next month,” Brockis said. “If you are interested in looking after your health, and in particular your brain health, why not start? Just make one small change.
“Often people feel they need to change their whole eating pattern and you might only last a couple of days or a week before going back to your old eating patterns -- we are creatures of habit.
“It’s about not going cold turkey, but just trying to eat less of those foods that we are being advised is not good for us,” Brockis said. “You don’t have to feel guilty about eating it, just don’t have it every day.”