You may not realize it when you do your grocery shopping, but what you put in your cart can change your body AND your brain. With the rising popularity of fad diets and cleanses promising a total transformation, it can be difficult to parse out what is really best to eat.
Luckily, neuroscientists have been studying the effects of nutrition on cognition for a while, and have identified a few key insights.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet has been a buzzword for healthy eating and has been featured in wellness magazines and talk shows. But what does it mean? Rather than being a strict eating plan, the Mediterranean diet takes inspiration from the general style of nutrition found in southern European countries like Italy and Greece.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes vegetables and fruits, unsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil, and wine. Typically, this diet contains low amounts of red meat, dairy, and saturated or processed fats. Researchers have found that stricter adherence to this diet reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases by 13% by preventing mild cognitive impairments.
The Mediterranean diet is more than a diet -- it is a methodology of nutrition. To practice this diet, consider your body’s energy balance and fuel needs. Eat mindfully, and eat just enough to maintain this energy balance. Researchers have found that overnutrition increases oxidative damage in the brain, reduces synaptic plasticity (how easily your brain is able to change and learn), and decreases cognitive function.
The phrase ‘fat’ gets demonized in diet culture. In reality, fats are a key nutrient and your body needs them to survive. Furthermore, neuroscientists have found that certain fatty acids (the building blocks of fats) help your brain THRIVE.
N-3 is a class of beneficial fatty acids found in vegetable oils such as linseed, rapeseed, and soybean, as well as fish and some meats. Studies have shown that a deficit of N-3 fatty acids leads to an increased risk of ADHD, dyslexia, and Alzheimer’s disease. DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) is a particularly important N-3 acid. Studies have shown that DHA is responsible for increasing cell membrane flexibility within the brain and plays a protective role in an inflammatory response.
Alpha lipoic acid is found in spinach, broccoli, potatoes, and certain meats (notably kidney, heart, and liver). This fatty acid maintains energy homeostasis (balance) in the mitochondria, the energy generators within the body. It has also been shown to improve memory deficits and reduce cognitive decay in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease.
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are found in olive oil, nuts, and avocado. This class of fatty acids is linked to ‘general intelligence.’ Study participants with a higher level of MUFAs in their body had a greater connectivity in their dorsal attention network (DAN). The DAN plays a role in top-down attention and problem solving. This high connectivity correlates with greater general intelligence.
The brain in particular is susceptible to oxidative stress and damage because of the amount of energy it consumes. Oxidative damage occurs when there is an imbalance in the body between free radicals (a destabilized molecule that can steal electrons from DNA, proteins, or lipids) and antioxidants. To prevent oxidative damage, consume pomegranates, blueberries, and blackberries, which contain powerful antioxidants called tannins.
One study found that an antioxidant-rich diet in rats increased hippocampal plasticity and benefited learning and memory performance.
Vitamins and Minerals
Trace elements, especially copper and zinc, play key roles in neurodevelopment. Low copper levels in the blood are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, while low zinc levels are linked to depression and cognitive decline in adults. These trace elements also influence neurotransmitter and DNA synthesis.
To make sure you’re getting the appropriate amount of these elements, eat the following foods:
For copper, try liver, seafood, nuts, whole grains, beans, and chocolate.
For zinc, try lean red meat, liver, seafood, and dairy products.
Finally, Vitamin E has been shown to increase cognitive performance and to improve memory deficit in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease. Although supplements of purified vitamin E are sold, you can find this naturally-occurring vitamin in vegetable oils, nuts, and green leafy vegetables.
Changing your diet can be one of the most transformative experiences for your mind and your body. Although everyone is entitled to a cheat day every once in a while, choosing brain-healthy foods on a consistent basis can improve your cognitive wellbeing and revolutionize your work performance and happiness. Next time you go on a grocery run, consider picking up one or more of the foods mentioned above!
Dauncey, M. J. “New Insights into Nutrition and Cognitive Neuroscience: Symposium on ‘Early Nutrition and Later Disease: Current Concepts, Research and Implications.’” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 68, no. 4 (November 2009): 408–15. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665109990188.
FeaturedNeuroscience·September 9, and 2017. “Nutrition Has Benefits For Brain Organization.” Neuroscience News (blog), September 9, 2017. https://neurosciencenews.com/nutrition-brain-organization-7450/.
Zamroziewicz, Marta K., and Aron K. Barbey. “The Mediterranean Diet and Healthy Brain Aging.” In Role of the Mediterranean Diet in the Brain and Neurodegenerative Diseases, 17–33. Elsevier, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-811959-4.00002-X.