Fish has long been called “brain food” due to its beneficial effects on cognition. But it’s not the only type of grub that’s great for your noggin. “For brain health, you want foods that keep your weight down, control blood sugar and improve your vascular system,” says Dr. Steven Platt, a La Jolla, Calif.-based ophthalmologist and board-certified integrative holistic medicine practitioner. “Fortunately, there are foods that help to do all of those things.”
Here are 10 of the best, according to Platt and other experts:
Wild Alaska salmon: Platt favors sockeye but says any variety of salmon from frigid Alaskan waters are great for the brain. “Wild salmon have a high concentration of essential fatty acids and DHA, the number one fat in the brain,” he says. “They have a lot of other brain healthy nutrients, such as vitamin D, selenium and carotenoids, and are basically pesticide-free.”
Avocados: Creamy avocados have several nutrients good for gray matter. They are loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats, which help produce a neurotransmitter vital for memory and learning. They are also rich in tyrosine, an amino acid that helps with concentration, as well as brain function supporting B-complex, C, E and K vitamins.
Blueberries: “All berries are good for the brain, but especially blueberries,” says Platt, author of five books, including “Superfoods Rx: 14 Foods That Will Change Your Life.” “They help to control blood sugar and blood pressure, and they’re anti-inflammatories.” The benefits come from a wide variety of flavonoids, potent antioxidants that are good for vascular health. “Blueberries not only help to keep the brain young but the whole body as well,” adds Platt.
Eggs: Unjustly maligned for decades due to their cholesterol content, eggs are now being hailed as a superfood for their wealth of nutrients. High in protein, B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, eggs are also the best dietary source of choline, a nutrient that promotes cognition as well as the energy-producing process in brain cells. Use the whole egg because the yolk contains most of the nutrients.
Dark leafy greens: Kale, spinach, chard, mustard greens, watercress, and other greens offer a wide range of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients packed into a small caloric package. “They also have nitrates, which turn into the nitric oxide, a vasodilator that improves blood flow,” says Platt. “Anything that gets the blood flowing better is good for the brain.”
Walnuts: All nuts are nutritional powerhouses, but none have the brain boosting properties of walnuts. They are one of the best sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant form of omega-3s, and one of the few foods that contain mood-elevating serotonin. Studies show that walnuts also have compounds that reduce inflammation and inhibit formation of the amyloid plaque, a marker of Alzheimer’s. Eat them raw for best results.
Dark chocolate: “One of my favorite brain foods is the cacao bean, which is full of flavonoids that increase blood flow naturally,” says Platt. “They’re also a great anti-inflammatory, raise good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol and have fiber and magnesium to help control blood pressure.” He stresses to eat dark chocolate with at least a70 percent concentration of cacao.
Tea: Black tea has both calming and stimulating effects, thanks to the unique combination of the amino acid L-theonine and caffeine. The result is better concentration and memory. And studies suggest that the antioxidant catechins found in black and green tea may help prevent cognitive decline and memory loss, boost reaction time and improve mood.
Turmeric: The spice commonly used in curry contains curcumin, an antioxidant that can pass through the protective blood-brain barrier to offer oxidative stress relief directly to brain cells. “In India, they eat about two grams of turmeric a day, and there is a very low incidence of Alzheimer’s,” says Platt. “There’s a study under way to see what that relationship is, but I’m betting it’s no coincidence.”
Yogurt: Fermented foods like yogurt nourish the gut microbiome by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria, and that’s good for the brain. Too much “bad” gut bacteria creates toxic byproducts that damage brain cells. Make sure you choose plain yogurt with “live and active cultures.” Other fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kefir and tamari, will also work.
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