Eat Smart All Summer Long: Foods For Better Brain Health

Chad Birt
Written by Chad Birt on Wed Jun 08 2022.
Foods for better brain health

June is Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month, an annual event founded by the Alzheimer's Association to help raise awareness about the disease and support patients and their families. In addition to raising money for research and educating the public, Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month presents an opportunity for everyday people to consider their neurological health.

Many factors affect brain health, but one that's often overlooked is diet. With the temperatures rising and seasonal produce making its way to grocery store shelves, now is the perfect time to start eating more fruits and vegetables.

Below, we discuss how food affects the brain and highlight several ingredients that family caregivers can include in meals and snacks.

How does aging affect the brain?

The natural aging process affects the brain just like other parts of the body. Getting older, causes nerve cells to transmit signals more slowly, and waste products, like plaque, may start building up. Various factors can affect cognitive decline, but the most common cause is inflammation.

"Many neurological issues have been linked to inflammation in the brain," said Wendy Lord, RD, a registered dietician and a nutritional consultant at Sensible Digs. "When we talk about nutrition that benefits cognitive function, we’re looking at foods that keep chronic inflammation under control."

If you want to have a healthy brain, Lord recommends focusing on two nutrients, in particular:

Omega-3 fatty acids

"Omega-3 fatty acids have numerous benefits for brain health, including improved cognitive function, better neuronal function, reduced risk of ischemic stroke, and working memory," Lord said. "They’re also beneficial for mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety."

Antioxidants

"Antioxidants help prevent damage from free radicals –– unstable molecules produced by metabolic processes," Lord said. "Under normal, healthy circumstances, the body can neutralize free radicals so that they aren't able to cause cell damage, disease, or aging."

Some of the most well-known antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.

Still, "the most powerful antioxidants are the phytonutrients found in colorful fruit and vegetables. It's recommended that everyone 'eat a rainbow' to maximize their intake of these potent plant chemicals," Lord said.

What foods may contribute to better brain health?

There are various foods that may contribute to better brain health. Manuel Villacorta, MS, RDN, an internationally recognized and award-winning registered dietitian-nutritionist recommends:

Cocoa flavanols

Cocoa flavanols are mineral compounds derived from the cocoa plant (the same plant used to make chocolate). "Backed by 20+ years of research, consuming 750 mg of cocoa flavanols daily is proven to improve memory and brain function," Villacorta said.

"A daily cocoa flavanol supplement, like  CocoaViaTM, is an easy way to incorporate cocoa flavanols without adding excessive calories, fat, and sugar to the diet."

Berries

"Many nutrients can support brain health, but one found in fruits and vegetables is anthocyanins," Villacorta said. "Compared to other commonly consumed fruits, berries are uniquely high in anthocyanins, which are responsible for their vibrant blue, red, and purple color.”

A study published in Nutrients highlights the cognitive benefits of eating blueberries. Researchers found that consuming the equivalent of a half-cup of fresh blueberries per day could “improve cognitive performance and influence metabolism and brain function.”

Oats

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but according to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, between 20-30% of older people don’t eat any.

"Overnight oats to the rescue,” Villacorta said. “This power breakfast offers a wide variety of health benefits. For example, oats contain beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber that helps maintain steady glucose levels, which are important for the brain to function at its best."

Fatty fish

Rima Kleiner, MS, RD, a registered dietician and blogger at Dish on Fish, recommends salmon, in particular.

"Packed with heart-healthy omega 3s and at 25 grams of protein per average serving, salmon is a no-brainer," Kleiner said.

"Salmon is the ultimate superfood. It is one of the richest sources of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which have incredible health benefits. They can help improve cardiovascular health, brain health, and cognitive function, as well as reduce inflammation and boost immunity."

Fruit

Fruits like apples, bananas, peaches, and plums are packed with vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. They're also a much healthier alternative to summer favorites like ice cream, popsicles, and slushies. Smoothies are okay, but avoid using the entire fruit bowl.

"If you use too much fruit, your blood sugar will rise dramatically," Lord said.

How can I include brain-healthy foods in my loved one's summer diet?

Now that you know about the foods that may contribute to brain health, you're probably wondering how to incorporate them into your care recipient's diet. 

Everyone's needs are different, but there are various things you can do to make good nutrition easier. Lord recommends:

  • Pureeing fruit and freezing it to make popsicles.

  • Slicing vegetables with a dip, such as hummus or peanut butter, for a healthy fiber, vitamin, and mineral boost.

  • Making your own frozen yogurt bars. "Puree some fruit with the yogurt, freeze, and enjoy on a hot summer day," Lord said.

  • Keep a jug of water in the fridge with some fruit and herb slices in it for added zest and flavor.

  • Preparing salads that contain berries and leafy greens.

  • Adding walnuts to dishes for antioxidants and extra crunch.

  • Slicing up watermelon. Watermelon contains lycopene, which may help prevent cognitive decline.

Your senior might also benefit from taking a nutritional supplement, like folate. 

The link between diet, health, and brain function

No one knows what causes neurocognitive decline, but living a healthy lifestyle and eating a balanced diet may help slow down the process and/or reduce your loved one’s risk.

"The human body relies on the energy and the nutrients provided by a balanced diet and other healthy lifestyle choices. When a person makes poor dietary choices, such as eating a diet that's too energy-dense or nutrient-poor, it increases the risk of developing chronic diseases," Lord said.

"The same applies to brain health and aging. A healthy diet protects the brain from common age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s Disease."

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance B2B and B2C medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.