Diet and Brain Health

Can Eating Certain Foods Affect Your Brain Health? 

Can the foods you eat help to lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other age-related cognitive disorders? Andrea Rumschlag, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic, says while genetics will always have an impact on our lives, our lifestyle has an influence as well. “A lifetime of healthy eating habits is an influential factor in living longer. There will likely be biological factors of degeneration but simply choosing to eat different foods can help slow those factors down.”

Researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University recently studied 104 people with an average age of 87 who had few risk factors for memory and thinking problems. They found that participants who ate diets high in Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamins C, D and E and the B vitamins had better scores on mental thinking tests than people with diets low in those nutrients.

The study also found that people with diets high in trans fats were more likely to have brain shrinkage and lower scores on thinking and memory tests. To avoid trans fats, Ms. Rumschlag says to steer clear of foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Packaged foods such as baked goods, some breads, crackers, chips, cookies, some margarines, fried foods and frozen foods tend to be the worst offenders, she says. “Don’t be fooled by the labels ‘trans fat free’ – the product can still have up to 0.49 gram trans fat per serving,” Ms. Rumschlag cautions. “Your best bet is to read the ingredient label and avoid foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.”

Food or Supplements?

The B vitamins studied were specifically B1, B2, B6, folate (B9) and B12. “It’s not difficult to increase your intake of these key vitamins through foods alone,” says Ms. Rumschlag. She says only strict vegetarians or vegans who consume no animal products would need to supplement with B12.

Here are some tips on what foods to eat for brain health:

  • B1(thiamin) is found in tuna, sunflower seeds and beans such as navy, black beans, pinto beans and lentils
  • B2 (riboflavin) is found in yogurt, soybeans, milk and leafy green vegetables such as spinach, swiss chard, mustard and collard greens
  • B6 is found in many animal foods such as beef, poultry, salmon and tuna, but can also be found in fortified breakfast cereals
  • Folate (B9) is found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach and greens (collard, mustard, turnip) as well as beans (pinto, black, garbanzo/chickpeas, navy) and in fortified breakfast cereals
  • B12 is mainly found in animal foods, but is sometimes added in fortified cereals. Use caution when increasing your B vitamin intake through cereals because many commercial cereals have excessive added sugars
  • Vitamin C is found in several foods besides orange juice. Strawberries, broccoli, kiwi, pineapple, even bell peppers and Brussels sprouts are all high in vitamin C
  • Vitamin D is plentiful in dairy products like low fat milk and yogurt, but it is also found in salmon, tuna and egg yolks
  • Vitamin E is found naturally in nuts and seeds. Sunflower seeds and almonds are two good sources
  • Omega 3 fatty acids are found in salmon, tuna, mackerel, flaxseed and walnuts.

It’s never too late to start a healthy diet, especially one that may prevent further decline in mental acuity, says Ms. Rumschlag. “These foods are not just brain healthy; they’re also heart healthy and can lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. Whole, minimally processed foods are the fuel our bodies need to function at its best,” she says.

To make a gift supporting the Neurological Institute or any area of Cleveland Clinic, visit our secure giving site or call Institutional Relations and Development at 216.444.1245 or toll-free at 800.223.2273, ext. 41245.

Cleveland Clinic Mobile Site