Eating for Brain Health


By Alyssa Havlovic, MS, RDN, ACSM EP-C, Extension Educator in Lancaster County

We all have those days when we feel more forgetful than others. You may have heard that a number of factors can affect our memory including lack of sleep, lifestyle, environmental changes and genetics. But, did you know your diet can also impact your brain health?

Eating to support brain health means choosing foods that encourage good blood flow to the brain. A growing body of research supports consuming a Mediterranean diet and/or DASH diet eating pattern to improve cognitive function, memory and alertness. Common themes between these eating patterns include a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean protein such as fish and beans, whole grains and healthy fats. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourages this eating style as a healthy eating pattern. So how can we boost our brain power through adopting these eating patterns?

You’ve probably heard this advice before — maybe from your caregivers at the dinner table, your doctor or dietitian or you’ve uttered this phrase to your own children. We know vegetables are important and provide our bodies with essential vitamins and minerals. Yet almost 90% of the U.S. population does not meet the recommendation for vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and dark, leafy greens may help improve your memory. Try adding broccoli to a breakfast quiche or egg casserole; add dark, leafy greens like spinach or kale to a sandwich; or snack on cauliflower dipped in hummus or a yogurt ranch dip. Experiment with different ways of cooking these vegetables such as roasting, steaming, sautéing or grilling to increase your vegetable intake.

Berries are a rich source of anthocyanins and other flavonoids that may support brain function, especially the dark-colored berries like blueberries, cherries and blackberries. Berries make a colorful addition to your plate — packing several essential nutrients — or can be enjoyed by the handful as a snack. Add berries to your oatmeal or cereal, enjoy dried cherries in trail mix or top off a yogurt parfait with berries. Fresh, frozen or dried berries are all acceptable, healthful ways to eat these brain boosters.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health. One in particular, called docosahexaenoic acid (or DHA), is required by the body to keep the brain functioning normally and efficiently. Studies show that individuals who have low levels of DHA are more likely to develop cognitive problems, including an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease in later years. Conversely, long-term consumption of adequate DHA is associated with improved memory, improved learning ability and reduced rates of cognitive decline.

It is important to consistently consume DHA, which is why the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating fish at least twice a week. Wild caught salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring and farmed trout are all excellent sources of DHA. Try substituting fish for other meats twice per week. For example, try salmon tacos one night and make tuna melts on whole grain bread later in the week.

Walnuts, ground flax seed and chia seeds are also great sources of omega-3’s and may improve your cognitive function. Walnuts are easily enjoyed on their own, sprinkled on a salad, added to breakfast cereal or chopped into baked goods. Ground flax seeds and chia seeds can be mixed into baked goods such as muffins, added to your morning bowl of oatmeal or blended into a smoothie.

If you are not getting enough of these nutrients in your diet on a regular basis, start with small changes — one meal, one day at a time. Your health can greatly benefit in several ways by simply increasing fruit and vegetable intake and consistently consuming omega-3 fatty acids. Talk with your healthcare provider or dietitian for more strategies to improve your eating patterns.