Foods for brain health
When it comes to protecting your brain health, the are a handful of ways to do it, and it’s no secret that diet is one of them. There’s definitely one specific thing you should avoid to protect your brain health (we’ll get to that below), but there are also some general best practices to think about as well.
For example, experts agree that ultra-processed and highly sweetened foods are bad for your brain health—and your health in general.
“A whole food, plant-based diet and decreasing the amount of ultra-processed foods you eat helps our bodies and brains function at a higher level,” says Dr. Supriya Rao, MD, a quadruple board-certified physician in gastroenterology, internal, obesity and lifestyle medicine. “When you eat a ton of processed foods, the opposite happens. These foods cause inflammation, which can damage the blood vessels that supply the brain with the blood it needs to function optimally.”
Dr. Rao adds, “Our gut health influences everything from your weight to your mood to your immune system and cognitive ability. It can be the reason for your fatigue, contributing to depression, and of course, the cause of your digestive issues. The brain and the gut have a strong connection, which is why some people feel sick to their stomach under stress.”
Related: Does Sugar Cause Inflammation?
Noelle Patno, nutritional scientist and chief science officer at Bened Life, says that high-sugar foods are also a no-go, and there’s a lot of intersection between ultra-processed foods and foods high in sugar.
The “high-sugar” qualifier isn’t limited to just traditional sugar, but also to foods and beverages sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.
“Excessive sugar consumption has been associated with impaired cognitive function,” Patno explains. “Higher blood glucose levels have been linked to dementia in a large study following people for several years.”
Katie Lounsberry, a registered dietitian at Providence Mission Hospital specializing in brain health, notes that there have been links between type 2 diabetes and the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia. “For this reason, foods that increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains and processed meats should be reduced,” she advises.
Patno also points out that processed meats, like cured, smoked or salted sausages and jerky, as well as fried foods, have been associated with lower cognitive function.
A good rule of thumb, says Dr. Clifford Segil, MD, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California: “Foods that are unhealthy for your heart are also bad for your brain.”
This is largely because heart-healthy habits decrease your risk of both heart attacks and stroke, both of which can cause severe brain damage and death. Further, he notes, “High-fat foods clog the arteries in your body—making it hard for blood to perfuse your organs. Foods with high sugar content also overwhelm parts of your body causing hyperglycemia, which may cause problems in the long term.”
Now, in terms of a specific food to avoid to benefit your brain? Chances are you’re not going to be thrilled about this one.
Related: The Worst Food for Heart Health
The One Thing You Should Never, Ever Eat if You Want To Protect Your Brain Health
According to Dr. Rao, the absolute worst food for your brain health (and overall health) is actually bacon—as well as other processed meats in general—but, again, especially bacon.
“Processed meat is classified as a Class 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization,” Dr. Rao points out, “which basically means there is enough evidence that processed meat can cause cancer.”
What’s more, bacon, in particular, is not only processed, but also often sweetened—making it the perfect intersection of terrible elements when it comes to your cognitive function and food.
Related: The Best Foods for Longevity
Other Foods and Beverages To Avoid To Protect Brain Health
It’s not just what you chew that can impact your brain health. What you drink is just as important for cognitive function.
Sorry, wine moms: Boozing is bad for your brain.
An occasional cocktail or a glass of wine or beer with dinner isn’t necessarily going to make your brain less sharp in the long term (unless your dinner is, say, a fried Twinkie every single day), but excessive drinking isn’t going to help your neurological and cognitive function.
“Although low, infrequent intake of alcohol may sometimes be considered beneficial, alcohol can be considered a poison at high concentrations and with excessive intake,” Patno says.
You already know drinking and driving is not OK, but there are other dangers to getting blitzed often—including sleep disruption and general slowing of your cognitive processes. Patno says that you can also get headaches, balance issues and potentially even memory loss over time if you’re drinking to excess frequently.
Related: What Happens to Your Body When You Quit Drinking
While heart-healthy habits can often include avoiding sugary drinks, you may want to reconsider swapping your regular soda for a diet one: Some studies have shown that drinks made with artificial sweeteners are linked with stroke and dementia in some patients. One study indicated that aspartame, in particular, has been linked with cognitive issues, stemming from oxidative stress (lower antioxidant levels relative to free radical levels) it may cause in the brain.
Related: What Happens to Your Body if You Drink Diet Soda Every Day
What Foods Have Been Linked to Better Brain Health?
The good news is that there are a lot of foods that are actually good for your noggin. Experts agree that the following foods can boost your brain health.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is Patno’s favorite because it’s heart- and metabolically-healthy and has also been linked to better brain health.
Related: 90% of Us Are Missing This Crucial Brain Health Nutrient
Foods high in omega-3s
While omega-3 supplements may be a bust healthwise, eating foods high in omega-3s is great for your heart and brain, Lounsberry notes. These include:
Related: The Best Breakfast to Boost Your Memory, According to a Neuropsychologist
Antioxidant-rich foods and drinks
Experts agree that you basically can’t have too many antioxidants in your diet—in part because they fight off free radicals that can mess with your brain health. There are so many foods rich in antioxidants that even picky eaters are pretty much guaranteed to find at least some that they like:
Related: The Best Food to Boost Your Memory
Foods high in magnesium
Patno recommends foods with healthy doses of magnesium, which have been linked to mood regulation—and we all know a stressed brain isn’t the healthiest, so it definitely can’t hurt to add these to your diet:
Related: The Pantry Staple That Can Cut Your Risk of Dementia
Foods rich in tryptophan
Tryptophan, most famous for being unfairly blamed for your food comas on Thanksgiving, has been linked to serotonin production, which can help keep your brain happy and your mental health in a good place. Good sources of tryptophan include:
Related: Neurologists and Alzheimer’s Experts’ Favorite Foods for Brain Health
Foods rich in choline
Lounsberry loves choline for brain health. It’s been linked to better cognitive function, including memory, mood and even muscle control. Foods richest in choline tend to be animal-based, but fear not vegetarians and vegans, because you’ve got options too. Choline-rich foods include:
Related: The Easy Daily Habit That Can Boost Your Memory
Caffeinated foods and drinks
While booze is bad for you, there’s no need to give up all of your vices: Lounsberry says that caffeine when enjoyed in moderation, can actually boost your short-term memory and protect you from neurological diseases. Be sure you opt for unsweetened or minimally sweetened versions of the below sources:
Next, Find Out How Your Sleep Habits Impact Your Dementia Risk