Some foods (hello, potato chips!) seem to go straight to our bellies and butts, which is a bummer. But the good news is that others go straight to our brains and give us a cognitive boost.
A study published this past January in Neurology shows that people who eat certain foods are more likely to have larger and smarter brains. And the best part—this brain boost was found in older folks in their 70s, 80s and beyond. Good news for them…and good news for anyone who hopes to get that old one day!
Which are the foods and their associated nutrients that make our brains bigger and smarter as we age?
MEALS FOR THE MIND
Instead of relying on study participants to self-report their food intake (which, of course, is not an exact measure), the researchers used a blood test that showed how much of certain foods each of the 104 healthy male and female study participants (average age 87) was eating. Diets can, of course, change over time, but the blood test gave researchers a ballpark idea of what each subject generally ate. They did not preselect the study participants based on their diets.
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Then the researchers gave 42 of the participants brain scans and 12 cognitive tests to all of them to see whether certain diets were associated with improved mental performance. One test checked memory by asking people to recall a paragraph after a delay, and others measured executive function (decision-making, planning, flexibility) by having people connect numbers and letters in a certain sequence as quickly as possible. Researchers also collected brain scans to see whether the diet differences were associated with physical differences in the brain.
Here’s what the research revealed…
- What helped the brain: A high concentration in the blood of vitamins B, C, D, and E and omega-3 fatty acids was associated with better executive function, attention and visual and spatial skills. And participants with the best memory skills were more likely to have higher levels of HDL “good” cholesterol…as well as higher levels of two antioxidants—lutein and zeaxanthin.
- What hurt the brain: On the other hand, participants with the highest levels of trans fat in their blood had more “brain fog” and smaller brains than other participants.
How wonderful that simply changing your diet might buttress your brain power. To find out why these particular nutrients may have helped or hurt, I called study coauthor Gene Bowman, ND, MPH, an epidemiologist in the department of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
PROTECTING YOUR CELL MEMBRANES
In terms of what helped, some of the nutrients listed above may protect the outer walls of the brain’s cell membranes, he said, allowing the machinery in the cell to keep working properly. Meanwhile, one of the ways that trans fats harm us is that they take the place of the “good” fats in our cell membranes, and that change may lead to deterioration of the cells’ structure.
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Of course, it isn’t news that our bodies need vitamins and antioxidants or that trans fats are bad for us. But when research is able to make such a direct link between what we eat and how well certain parts of our bodies function—well, that is the kind of information that makes it much easier for me to say “no thanks” to processed foods and “hello” to foods like three-pepper sauté, kiwi-berry fruit salsa, poached salmon and macadamia “crème fraiche.” I can now easily imagine the nutrients from these foods speeding to my brain cells and keeping them strong. You, too?
Update: Here are more specifics on which foods to eat and which foods to avoid! The first food rule related to the study is to avoid trans fats—as you know these are found mostly in fried, processed and commercial, packaged foods. On the “to eat” list: vegetables that are especially high in vitamins and antioxidants, such as spinach, broccoli and zucchini and other deeply colored veggies…deeply colored fruits…and foods that are rich in omega 3’s, such as flax seeds, walnuts and salmon. And you would favor unsaturated fats—such as those that come from olive oil and peanuts—and go very easy on saturated fats, to boost your HDL “good” cholesterol. —Editor Carole Jackson