Although a student of nutrition, nothing has truly emblazoned upon my mind the necessity of a clean, balanced diet than a phrase I recently found on Pinterest and used in my last blog post: Food can be the best medicine or the slowest form of poison. This is true whether you’re eating for everyday health, weight loss or to prevent disease and overall decline associated with aging.
The food you consume also has significant implications on the brain: unhealthy diets may increase risk for psychiatric and neurologic conditions, such as depression and dementia, while healthy diets offer protective benefits. Below are 8 foods that can savor your brain power well into your elder years and give a boost to the “feel-good” receptors in the brain.
- Whole foods. A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2010 uncovered evidence that a whole foods diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and high-quality meats and fish results in a 30% risk reduction for depression and anxiety disorders, compared with consumption of a “Western diet” high in processed foods and saturated fats.
- Healthy fats. Thanks to the widespread ban of trans fat in foods, a majority of the population is aware just how bad these fats are for you, but do you know just how good unsaturated fats can be for you? A 2011 study published in the journal, PLoS One, reported that consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids decreases the risk of depression over time. Trans and saturated fats, on the other hand, have been linked to ischemic stroke, increased risk of depression and diseases of cognitive decline.
- Fish oil. Thanks to high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, fish are associated with a decreased risk of numerous diseases affecting the brain. In 2010, a study published in the journal, BMC Psychiatry, showed a link between the consumption of fish and a lower risk of psychotic symptoms – including subsequent studies showing prevention of psychosis in high-risk individuals. Although there is a great deal of conflicting data, recent research has suggested that supplementing omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are beneficial in the treatment of depression and postpartum depression, while low levels of omega-3s are correlated to risk of suicide.
- Mediterranean. If you are concerned about some of the disease and conditions classically associated with aging, such as depression, stroke or dementia, consider the Mediterranean diet. Not only is it rich in flavor – it’s a steady diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and unsaturated fats (olive oil, nuts etc.) – but a 2009 study revealed people on this diet are 30 percent less likely to develop depression, compared to those who consume a diet heavy in meat and dairy products. The results also showed that individuals consuming this diet are at a reduced risk of general cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, especially in conjunction with high levels of physical activity.
- Berries. Polyphenols, primarily anthocyanins, found in high concentrations in berries, may slow cognitive decline, which can be attributed to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. A 2010 study unveiled that a diet high in strawberry, blueberry or blackberry extract leads to an improvement in cognitive decline associated with age. The anthocyanins in berries may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is linked to the scavenging of free radicals and improved endothelial and platelet function, likely via polyphenols from the cocoa bean plant. A 2010 study published in European Heart Journal found that consumption of 6 grams of chocolate daily was associated with a 39 percent lower combined risk for myocardial infarction and stroke, while data collected from another study demonstrated a 20 percent decreased risk for stroke in women who regularly consume chocolate.
- Coffee. Consumption of 1-6 cups of coffee a day cuts stroke risk by 17 percent, according the findings of a 2011 meta-analysis. Coffee beans contain antioxidant compounds that improve insulin sensitivity and reduce LDL levels and inflammatory markers. Another study concluded that the risk of depression in women decrease with the number of cups of coffee. Women who average 2 to 3 cups per day have 15 percent lower risk of depression, while those that consume four have a 20 percent reduced risk.
- Moderate alcohol. Low to moderate* alcohol consumption id defined by the FDA as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. One drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 of distilled spirits. This level of intake has been associated with several potential physiological benefits, including improvements of cholesterol profiles, platelet and clotting function, insulin sensitivity and a decreased risk of dementia. Moderate intake of red wine, thanks to the high polyphenol content, may also protect against cerebrovascular disease. However, it is important to note the benefits of low to moderate alcohol consumption do not supersede avoiding the risk of alcoholism or alcohol abuse. Heavy and long-term alcohol use can lead to impaired memory function, contribute to neurodegenerative disease and hinder psychosocial functioning.