15 Weeks of More
Week 7: Foods for a Brain Boost
This week is an exciting week and not just because I’m writing this on my way to Greece (hey, Mediterranean diet!), but because we are talking about a group of foods with benefits for our brains. If you have questions or want to share your experience with 15 Weeks of More so far, please email me. I would love to hear from you.
Week 7: Foods for a Brain Boost
It seems like the health of our brains is often taken for granted. We can’t see it or touch it, but its function is absolutely essential to life. Like the heart beating, our brains are constantly at work every second of every day. And like any other organ in our bodies, what we eat has a direct impact on its health. So this week we will focus on the foods that are known to have an impact on the health of our brains and on how we can include more of them in our daily diets.
In general, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, and unsaturated fats is important for a healthy brain. Research shows that specific nutrients play a role in maintaining a healthy brain. These nutrients include polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and B vitamins. We will explore a few foods this week that are rich in one or more of these nutrients specifically the following:
Fatty fish and/or vegetarian sources of polyunsaturated fats
Your goal this week is to add one serving from each food group to your meals or snacks.
Dark leafy greens contain folate, an important B vitamin for brain health. They’re also a source of vitamin K, fiber, and beta carotene. Dark leafy greens include spinach, kale, collard greens, and romaine lettuce. If you want a full list of dark leafy green vegetables visit here.
Dark leafy greens can be included in obvious ways such as salads and blended into smoothies, but you can also boost your intake by adding dark leafy greens to sauces, soups, stir-fry dishes, casseroles, and even hot breakfast cereals. Anyone who has cooked with spinach knows that it will practically disappear in your pan when you sauté with other vegetables. This means you can add it to almost any cooked dish without really noticing it’s there, especially if that dish is a sauce or soup.
Have you ever seen a full walnut? It is actually shaped like a brain. How cool is that? Maybe it’s just me, but the fact that it’s shaped like a brain and is good for your brain makes me really excited as a dietitian and food lover. So what is it about walnuts that makes them so good? To start, walnuts are a source of polyunsaturated fats. The presence of polyunsaturated fats is known to benefit the brain by improving the function of brain cells. Walnuts are also a source of phytochemicals, vitamin E, and multiple other plant compounds that have been connected to improved brain function. In studies looking at walnut intake in populations following a Mediterranean diet, those with a 30g intake of mixed nuts (15g of which were walnuts, the others a mix between almonds and hazelnuts) found that the nuts group had a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and memory. It must be noted that simply including nuts in the diet without changing other aspects to follow a more healthful pattern will likely not have the same effects. So consider the diet pattern as a whole and not just the intake of walnuts alone.
Add walnuts to your diet by blending into smoothies, sprinkling on whole grain toast with fruit, or simply by snacking on them in a trail mix or with a piece of whole fruit. Walnuts can also be blended into sauces for an added creamy, nutty flavor and texture.
The season for fresh berries as passed, but this doesn’t mean they can’t still be a part of your diet. I like to buy frozen berries this time of year to avoid paying premium prices for out of season fruit. Some studies have shown a connection between berry intake and cognitive health. This connection is likely due to their flavonoid content. What’s interesting about berries and the compounds that benefit the brain is that these same compounds can be found in a variety of foods. Green tea, dark chocolate, red wine, and apples are all known to contain flavonoids that may have the same benefits on cognitive health as that of berries. What is it about the flavonoids? Some studies have shown that flavanoids have an impact on the elasticity of blood vessels. This elasticity helps to improve vascular function which promotes heart and brain health.
As mentioned above, it isn’t just berries that contain these beneficial compounds. Other foods like dark chocolate and green tea also have flavanoids to promote brain health. Try swapping a cup of coffee for a cup of green tea. Or consider adding a handful of frozen berries to your oatmeal. Dark chocolate can also be enjoyed in a variety of ways including dark chocolate dipped strawberries (two flavonoid-rich foods!), dark chocolate chunks in a trail mix (maybe with walnuts?), or dark chocolate melted with peanut butter and drizzled into homemade peanut butter cups.
Fatty Fish/Vegetarian Polyunsaturated Fats
The topic of polyunsaturated fats has been mentioned once already when we reviewed the benefits of walnuts above, but it’s worth expanding on this important group of dietary fats. Other sources include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna, as well as avocados, and other nuts and seeds. (You might already be familiar with nuts and seeds because of our recent focus in Week 6.)
Consider replacing a serving of red meat each week with a serving of fatty fish. Or if you're vegetarian, add sources of polyunsaturated fats to your meals this week. This includes nuts and seeds and plant-based oils.
I will be on social this week sharing how I'm adding foods for a brain boost to my day and I'm looking forward to connecting with you! I will also be sharing lots of photos from Greece, so be sure to follow along. And don't forget to share your tips and ideas with #aneweats.
You can see more on Instagram @allisonknottrd or on Facebook on the ANEWtrition page.
New here? Check out the introduction to 15 Weeks of More, Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, and Week 6.