Neurology Insights

A Neurologist’s Guide to a Brain Healthy Diet

Photo of foods that are healthy for your brain ranging from avocado to salmnon to nuts

“This year, I am cutting out all sugar from my diet.”

“I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be taking a glance at that dinner roll!”

We’ve all been there. The new year is a time when we all set high resolutions for ourselves. Some of them are achievable, while others fall to the wayside a couple of weeks or even days later.

This year, let’s flip the script. Instead of making the usual resolutions to eliminate a list of foods from our diets, let’s focus on adding more of the good stuff to our plates for long-term success.

Healthier Brain, Healthier You

Did you know that our brains consume 20% of our daily caloric intake?

The foods we eat have a direct impact on our brain health, the most vital and complex organ in our bodies. A brain healthy diet can mean the difference between an increased or decreased risk of inflammation, oxidative stress and neurological disease.

In this guide, we will explore some of the best “brain foods” known to boost cognitive function and overall well-being. As you read, consider ways that you can creatively incorporate these foods into your diet. Nourishing your brain doesn’t have to be a chore!

Brain Superfoods to Stay on Top of this Year

1) Fatty Fish - Omega 3 Fatty Acids

When it comes to brain health, think of Omega-3s as your brain’s best friend.

Omega 3 fatty acids are comprised of 3 main healthy fats needed to promote healthy cognitive function. These are known as ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

Where can I find Omega-3s?

Omega-3s derived from marine life are considered the gold standard as they are high in DHA. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel help keep your memory sharp and protect against brain aging. Recent studies show that Omega 3 deficiency has been linked to cognitive disease, including a nearly 30% higher risk of memory problems, and developing Alzheimer’s later in life.

For those who cannot eat fish and need an alternative, algae-based supplements can provide a near-complete profile of Omega-3s.

Tip:  Enjoy at least 8 ounces of fatty fish each week to nourish your brain with these essential nutrients.

2) Nuts & Seeds – Healthy Fat, Fiber & Plant-Based Omega-3’s

Eating a bag of mixed nuts or trail mix doesn’t just taste good, but it can provide a variety of healthy fats, fiber, and other vitamins, too. Walnuts are particularly beneficial as they offer twice as many antioxidants as other nuts, which are known to fight cognitive decline. They also contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. And if you have ever really looked at a walnut, you will notice that it actually looks like a mini-brain. Now, there’s a clue right there!

When incorporating nuts and seeds into your grocery list, keep your eyes peeled for these small but brain-healthy powerhouses:

  • Walnuts and Brazil nuts, which are great sources of sources of ALA
  • Pecans and chestnuts have the highest levels of antioxidants
  • Seeds like chia, flax, and pumpkin seeds contain protein, omega 3-s, fiber, and vitamins like magnesium, zinc, and vitamin E.

Tip: Crush and sprinkle walnuts, brazil nuts, or a variety of nuts into your salad or yogurt for a crunchy and brain-boosting addition. 

3) Dark Chocolate – Antioxidants & Magnesium

Brain health includes mood health, too! So don’t give up on all your sweets in the new year.

Recent studies have shown that dark chocolate comes with a plethora of health benefits, including lowering depressive symptoms and activating neural pathways in the brain, and this is partially thanks to magnesium! Magnesium is a mineral that plays a key role in muscle and nerve function, as well as energy production. By directly impacting neurotransmitters, magnesium can provide an immediate boost in well-being while positively impacting brain function.

Tip: If you are new to dark chocolate, starting with 70% dark chocolate is a great way to enjoy flavor and benefits! However, as I always tell my patients, if you are going to eat chocolate, make sure you offset the dehydration with additional water intake.

4) Leafy Greens – Vitamins, Minerals & Fiber

We all know we need to eat our greens, but there’s nothing wrong with choosing favorites, especially when they bring an added boost of benefits!

Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and even romaine lettuce offer a rich blend of vitamins A, C, K, and B9 and minerals like calcium and iron that are crucial for brain health. And it doesn’t stop there. Eating leafy green’s high antioxidant and phytonutrient content has been shown to combat inflammation and protect against neurological decline.

Tip: Eating leafy greens doesn’t have to be bland or boring! Try incorporating a cup a day through a breakfast omelet or alongside your favorite foods, like a cheesy pasta dish. Your brain will thank you later!

5) Turmeric – Curcumin

Silent oxidative stress and neurological damage are some of the main drivers of cognitive decline. Recent studies have shown that turmeric root has brain protective benefits via its main ingredient, curcumin. Curcumin is potent in antioxidants and has a unique ability to enter and strengthen the blood-brain barrier.

Turmeric, whether enjoyed freshly ground or in supplement form, can help reduce brain inflammation, decrease anxiety, and even stimulate new brain connections.

Tip: Try adding a little black pepper to your meal. Black pepper can help enhance the absorption of curcumin by up to 2000%.

Honorable Mentions

Other foods you can relish while benefiting your brain include avocados for their healthy fats, eggs rich in brain-healthy choline, and antioxidant-packed berries, like blueberries and blackberries. For a quick and easy pantry staple upgrade, try whole grains for their brain-boosting fiber and green tea and coffee for a brain focus boost.

Don’t Forget to Hydrate

Drinking water is about more than quenching thirst. Our brains cannot function without adequate water.

Did you know that our brains are about 75 to 86 percent water, and even mild dehydration can affect our cognitive ability, attention span, memory, and motor skills?

Adequate hydration helps to ensure that the brain receives the oxygen it needs and facilitates the removal of toxins. Additionally, water can enhance neuron activity and support the production of neurotransmitters and hormones that are crucial for brain function.

Learn more about the power of hydration here: Experience Relief Through Hydration.

Tip: If you find it hard to drink water throughout the day, consider infusing your water with a slice of lemon, cucumber, or your favorite fruits for a refreshing twist.

A Message From Dr. Kandel

“We have all heard that “you are what you eat!” Well, now we have a choice to make; you can eat healthy foods to maintain and improve brain health, or you can continue with your same diet….the choice is yours. I vote for a new, healthier you in the year ahead!”

Dr. Joseph Kandel portrait

Joseph Kandel, MD

Board Certified Neurologist
Serving Naples and Fort Myers, FL

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