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Brain healthy diets: What are the best foods for brain health?

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Lifestyle factors can influence brain health, with your diet being one of the most important influencers. The food you eat can cause structural and functional developments in the brain.  There is a strong relationship between your diet and mental health. Brain health nutrition research has discovered evidence-based diets that can promote healthy cognition all the way till old age. These diets are rich in foods that are good for your brain. The commonalities of these diets are that they propose a whole foods approach with higher intake of plant-based foods and lower intake of animal food sources. 

Here are 4 brain healthy diets that can help you optimise your cognitive power. 

  • The Mediterranean diet to build a strong brain structure.
  • This is the diet traditionally eaten in the Mediterranean countries like Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey. In these regions, whole grains, beans and legumes, fruits and vegetables, fish and olive oil are widely consumed with limited intake of red meat and sweets. The current recommendations of the Mediterranean diet are as follows [1]:

    Every meal

    Daily

    Weekly

    Occasionally

    1-2 servings of fruits

    2 servings of low-fat dairy

    2 or more servings of fish/seafood

    2 or less servings of potatoes

    2 or more servings of vegetables

    1-2 servings of olives/nuts/seeds

    2 or more servings of legumes

    Less than 2 servings of red meat

    1-2 servings of grains

    Liberal use of herbs and spices

    2-4 servings of eggs

    Less than 2 servings of sweets

    Olive oil

    2 servings of white meat

    Less than 1 serving of processed meat


    The nutrient combination from these foods were found to increase total brain volume, specifically those areas that are involved in processing and speeding up transfer of information [2]. One study found that adhering to the Mediterranean diet can help protect against 5 years of brain ageing, especially those who ate fish weekly and those who limited meat to <100g/day [3]. High amounts of DHA (healthy fats) found in fatty fish promotes brain cell production. 25% of your brain’s fat is made of DHA [4], adequate intake ensures building structural integrity. brain feed has developed a sustainable and plant-based omega 3 supplement that provides you with 500mg of DHA in just one vegan soft-gel capsule. Use code ‘NEW15’ to get 15% off your first purchase.


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    Nutrients like vitamin B vitamins have shown to limit brain damage in old age, promoting a stronger brain. Eating a Mediterranean diet is also shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40% [5].

  • The MIND diet to maximise memory power. 
  • The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) is specifically designed for brain health and is a mashup of 2 evidenced-based diets, the Mediterranean diet, and the DASH diet (for high blood pressure and blood health). This diet is more specific in the types of foods recommended, with 15 brain healthy foods being encouraged and 5 foods to limit. 

    The MIND diet focuses on 15 specific dietary components- 10 healthy foods that are recommended and 5 foods that must be limited [6]. You can calculate your MIND diet adherence score here. 

    10 healthy foods to enjoy

    Recommendation

    Green leafy vegetables

    >6 servings a week

    Nuts

    ≥5 servings a week

    Other vegetables

    >1 serving a day

    Whole grains

    ≥3 servings a day

    Berries

    ≥2 servings a week

    Beans

    >3 meals a week

    Fish (not fried)

    ≥1 meals a week

    Poultry (not fried)

    ≥2 meals a week

    Olive oil

    Primary oil used

    Wine (in moderation)

    1 glass a day

    The MIND diet lays emphasis on daily intake of berries and vegetables. High intake of plant nutrients called flavonoids (the specific flavonoid in berries in anthocyanins), is evidenced to improve memory and attention scores [7]. Elderberries, blueberries, and cranberries are excellent sources. One way flavonoids help with cognition is by increasing blood flow to the brain, which helps carry oxygen and nutrients. They also increase the size of brain cells in the memory areas of the brain [8]. The stronger you adhere to the MIND diet, the better your memory will be. A review of 13 studies found that increment in 1 point on the MIND diet, lowers the risk of cognitive impairment by almost 20% [9] 

  • The keto-Mediterranean diet for long term brain protection.
  • Another mash-up of the Mediterranean diet is its mix with the ketogenic diet.  The ketogenic diet is one which recommends high intake of healthy fats and low intake of carbohydrates. This is done with the aim of encouraging the use of fat by-products (ketone bodies) to be used for brain energy sources. If done right, ketone bodies have shown to have cognitive benefits. The switch in energy source mimics a stressful situation, which turns on the protective mode in the brain. To better deal with stress, the brain produces new brain cells and connections, thereby improving brain health [10]. A recent 2023 study found that a keto-Mediterranean diet can help reduce harmful compounds of Alzheimer’s disease, and reduce its risk [11]. The Mediterranean diet’s recommendations of fats from fish and olive oil and carbohydrates from vegetables and fruits adds to the mash-up benefits like increased blood flow to the brain and use of ketone bodies as energy source [12]. More research is warranted but this area looks promising.

  • The Nordic diet for a cognitive boost.
  • The Nordic diet is a regional eating pattern of the Scandinavian countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and encourages intake of seasonal and sustainable plant-based foods. 

    The following are the recommended amounts (grams/day) of different foods in the Nordic Diet [13]:

    Dietary component

    Recommended intake (grams/day)

    Total fruits

    • Berries

    More than 300g 

    • 50-100g

    Total vegetables 

    • Cabbages
    • Root vegetables
    • Legumes

    More than 400g

    • More than 29g
    • More than 150g
    • More than 30g

    Fresh herbs

    As much as possible

    Potatoes

    More than 140g

    Plants and mushrooms from the wild 

    5g

    Whole grains

    More than 75g

    Nuts

    More than 30g

    Fish and shellfish

    More than 43g

    Seaweed

    5g

    Free range livestock (including pork and chicken)

    85-100g

    Like the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet has shown to have cognitive benefits. It has similarities to the MIND diet with its recommendations of regular intake of berries and nuts. The main difference between the two diets is the type of oil recommended. The Nordic diet uses locally available rapeseed oil as opposed to olive oil. Rapeseed oil has high amounts of healthy fats, some of which are converted to DHA. It also has nutrients like ubiquinone, involved in energy production and protection against cell damage [16]. Long term adherence to this diet increases the chance of a dementia-free life by 20% [14], and better scores in memory tests [15].

    All brain healthy diets have certain commonalities:

    • Eating unprocessed, local, seasonal foods
    • High intake of wholegrains, legumes, fruits (especially berries) and vegetables. 
    • Moderate intake of fish and seafood.
    • Low intake of meat, sugary and processed foods.
    • Limited alcohol intake.

    Building your diet from these guidelines can help promote good brain health until old age, with better memory and stronger brain structure. 

     

    References

    1. FUNDACIÓN DIETA MEDITERRANEA. (n.d.). WHAT’S THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET? [online]
    2. Jaqua, E. et al. (2023). The Impact of the Six Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine on Brain Health. Cureus15(2), e34605.
    3. Gu, Y. et al. (2015). Mediterranean diet and brain structure in a multiethnic elderly cohort. Neurology85(20), 1744–1751.
    4. Guesnet, P. et al. (2011). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the developing central nervous system (CNS) - Implications for dietary recommendations. Biochimie, [online] 93(1), pp.7–12.
    5. Fu, J. et al. (2022) Association between the mediterranean diet and cognitive health among healthy adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Nutrition. 9:946361.
    6. Morris, M. C. et al. (2015). MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer's Association, 11(9), 1007–1014.
    7. Medina dos Santos, N. et al. (2019). Current evidence on cognitive improvement and neuroprotection promoted by anthocyanins. Current Opinion in Food Science, [online] 26, pp.71–78.
    8. Ayaz, M. et al. (2019). Flavonoids as Prospective Neuroprotectants and Their Therapeutic Propensity in Aging Associated Neurological Disorders. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 11.
    9. Kheirouri, S. et al. (2021). MIND diet and cognitive performance in older adults: a systematic review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, pp.1–19.
    10. Baik, S.-H. et al. (2020). Intermittent fasting increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Brain and Behavior, [online] 10(1), p.e01444.
    11. Dilmore, A. H. et al. (2023). Effects of a ketogenic and low-fat diet on the human metabolome, microbiome, and foodome in adults at risk for Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer's Association, 10.1002/alz.13007. Advance online publication.
    12. Neth, B. J. et al. (2020). Modified ketogenic diet is associated with improved cerebrospinal fluid biomarker profile, cerebral perfusion, and cerebral ketone body uptake in older adults at risk for Alzheimer's disease: a pilot study. Neurobiology of aging86, 54–63.
    13. Mithril, C. et al. (2012). Guidelines for the New Nordic Diet. Public health nutrition, 15(10), 1941–1947.
    14. Wu, W. et al. (2021). The Nordic prudent diet prolongs survival with good mental and physical functioning among older adults: The role of healthy lifestyle. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland), 40(8), 4838–4844.
    15. Männikkö, R. et al. (2015). The Nordic diet and cognition--The DR's EXTRA Study. The British journal of nutrition, 114(2), 231–239
    16. Krznarić, Ž. et al. (2021). The Mediterranean and Nordic Diet: A Review of Differences and Similarities of Two Sustainable, Health-Promoting Dietary Patterns. Frontiers in nutrition8, 683678.

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