There’s no doubt that what you eat is connected to physical health. Food also impacts your mental health. From helping you maintain focus to potentially fighting off dementia, what’s on your plate impacts your brain.
“Your brain operates on fuel, even when you’re sleeping. We have to put in good, healthy fuel so our brains can operate at their best,” explains Jan Tilley, MS, RDN, LD, and President/CEO of JTA Wellness, a nutrition consulting firm promoting healthy living through nutrition and fitness.
If you put in the wrong fuel, like sugar and saturated fats, “Our brains can’t function like we want them to,” notes Tilley.
The right diet can also help your brain to grow. “Adults can generate up to 700 brain neurons per day — once thought to be something that occurred only prenatally,” notes Kathryn Scoblick, author and the owner of Health Inspires in Austin, where she works as a certified health and wellness coach. “Your ability to generate new brain cells depends on your diet, exercise, being curious and constantly learning new things.”
“Food can affect every part of your being, including your mental clarity and ability to focus,” explains Scoblick. Tilley agrees. “We tease about being ‘hangry’. It’s true. If you’re eating a lot of refined products and processed foods, you’re shooting your blood sugar up quickly and dropping it back down, which causes your mood to drop.”
So what should you be eating to keep your mind focused, sharp and growing?
“One of the most important things you can do for brain health are food that are high in healthy fats,” details Tilley. Healthy fats include avocados, nuts, and olive oil. The fat in avocados has even been shown to help protect and regenerate synapses in the brain to help prevent cognitive decline, so guacamole really is your friend.
Nuts and seeds are also good sources of healthy fats. Walnuts and almonds top the nutritional list, but sunflower, flax, chia, pumpkin and hemp seeds are all good to enjoy. “Nut butters are a great option too,” says Scoblick. “Check the ingredients and choose those with only the nut, and nothing other than salt — no palm oil or hydrogenated oil.” She suggests trying some roasted or pan-toasted, then tossed in salads.
Tilley recommends pairing a healthy fat with a complex carbohydrate. “Eating the right foods can keep you on a more even keel, so pairing a complex carbohydrate with lean protein or healthy fat to slow your digestion helps your blood sugar and energy level, giving you fuel throughout the day,” Tilley notes that carbohydrates — even complex ones — should not fill more than a quarter of your plate. Complex carbohydrates are high in fiber and slow to break down, like quinoa, brown rice, whole grain pasta and even sweet potatoes. “Aim for one-third to one-half cup per serving.”
From a protein standpoint, both Scoblick and Tilley recommend fish, especially fatty ones like salmon, halibut, cod, mackerel or sardines. “Salmon’s omega-3 fatty acid content has it on every superfood list,” notes Scoblick. “Omega 3s are attributed to lowering risk of heart disease, helping arthritis and preventing Alzheimer’s.”
To round-out a healthy-mind diet, keep your plate focused on vegetables. “Half of your plate should be vegetables,” notes Tilley. A recent study found that eating one to two servings a day of green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and arugula) had a powerful impact on preventing cognitive decline and dementia. “The findings suggest this benefit is likely from important nutrients found in these vegetables, such as folate, lutein, and nitrate, which are known to be associated with slowing cognitive decline,” she explains.
Another brain food to enjoy is berries. From blue to black, as well as strawberries and raspberries, they have a low sugar impact and are packed with antioxidants, lowering your risk of heart disease and cancer while stabilizing brain function. “All berries are good, yet choose blueberries for the most powerful punch,” notes Scoblick.
And to boost your overall health, drink up. “You should drink half of your body weight in ounces of water each day,” advises Tilley. “It does so much to remove the toxins in your body and clean things up.” If water isn’t your thing, unsweetened tea, coffee or sparkling waters are also good.
It’s little surprise that both Scoblick and Tilley advise that clean eating is best for both body and brain health. To eat your way to a healthy mind, Tilley has a great reminder: “Food is medicine. It has the power to heal, repair and restore our bodies when we put it in right.”
By Dawn Robinette