Contributed by Mirieta Selimovska
MHSc. (c), Nutritionist
Significant evidence suggests that what we eat can influence our risks of cognitive decline, including the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Here are some top nutrients to consider that can help support the growth of a sharp mind, as well as where to find them!
Dementia is caused by a variety of factors, with oxidative stress (imposed by free radicals) being a particularly strong contributor. This is because the brain creates a lot of free radicals while breaking down oxygen for energy. Free radicals can cause damage to the brain’s cells (called neurons). It is because of this that the role ofanti-oxidants and how they can protect against free radicals, and thereby delay cognitive decline, has been heavily investigated (1). Antioxidants are found in a wide variety of foods, but primarily and in highest of quantities amongst those that are plant-based. This includes fruits and vegetables such as berries and leafy greens, as well as nuts, seeds and even dark chocolate!
The evidence that supports the beneficial consumption of antioxidants is also great news for coffee lovers! A moderate caffeine intake (up to three cups/day) can offer the same kind of protection against oxidative stress. This is not to say however, that consuming caffeine beyond this amount can benefit our brains without also inflicting any of the adverse effects that we know excess caffeine consumption to be associated with. Along similar lines, red wine is also a rich source of antioxidants, but should be consumed responsibly and as per current recommendations (2).
Fats are important when it comes to brain health, as they are used to support the structural and functional development of neurons. Unsaturated, ‘healthy’ fats are especially valuable in supporting cognitive performance, and particularly, omega-3 fatty acids (1,3). Omega-3 fats are not found in that great of a variety of foods, but some options include avocado, nuts and seeds like walnuts, flax and chia, as well as most popularly- fatty fish like salmon!
An intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, about once or twice a week, can significantly help decrease the risks of cognitive impairment amongst older adults. Is that to say that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is a good idea? Not necessarily, an excess intake beyond current daily recommendations is likely not very beneficial. Based on current evidence, this is not recommended for the purpose of preventing dementia. Instead, for the average healthy person, striving to consistently meet current dietary guidelines for healthy fats through food is sufficient (2).
Carbohydrates are the brain’s preferred source of energy (4). For optimal nutrition, as well as improved health outcomes in other aspects beyond brain health, it’s best to enjoy whole grain sources of carbohydrates more often than refined varieties (5). Fun fact: many whole grains are also a rich source of vitamin E, which is an antioxidant (1). Talk about a double win! Examples of whole grain foods include: barley, bulgur wheat, wholegrain breads and pastas, brown rice, and of course- oats!
Without a doubt, a variety of nutrient-dense foods exist that can offer valuable healthbenefits to support the brain and its function. This includes antioxidant-rich plant-based foods, as well as healthy fats and quality whole grains. There are therefore plenty of opportunities to explore different flavours and enjoyably eat your way to a brighter brain!
(1)Freitas, H., Ferreira, G., Trevenzoli, I., Oliveira, K., & de Melo Reis, R. (2017). Fatty Acids, Antioxidants and Physical Activity in Brain Aging.Nutrients,9(11), 1263. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9111263
(2)Alzheimer’s Disease International. (2014, February).Nutrition and Dementia. https://www.alz.co.uk/sites/default/files/pdfs/nutrition-and-dementia.pdf
(3)Chianese, R., Coccurello, R., Viggiano, A., Scafuro, M., Fiore, M., Coppola, G., Operto, F. F., Fasano, S., Laye, S., Pierantoni, R., & Meccariello, R. (2018). Impact of Dietary Fats on Brain Functions.Current Neuropharmacology,16(7), 1059–1085. https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159x15666171017102547
(4) Dienel, G. A. (2019). Brain Glucose Metabolism: Integration of Energetics with Function.Physiological Reviews, 99(1), 949-1045.
(5) Health Canada. (2019, December 04). Healthy eating recommendations. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/healthy-eating-recommendations/make-it-a-habit-to-eat-vegetables-fruit-whole-grains-and-protein-foods/eat-whole-grain-foods/
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