It seems that diet tips are everywhere this time of year to help you lose the winter weight, or get in shape for spring. Although useful for cutting down on our waistlines, many of these healthy eating tips neglect the most important part of our bodies: the brain.
As much as 50 percent of the foods we consume end up “fueling” our brains, which ultimately impacts our development, memory and cognition. So it is about time that we got some advice on which foods are the best for brain health.
To tackle this question, Well Community spoke with Dr. Dan Laich, a neurological surgeon at The Chicago Back Institute at Swedish Covenant Hospital, and Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, official nutrition consultant for the Chicago Cubs, NBC Chicago’s nutrition expert, and a health blogger for USA Today.
Both are leaders in their respective fields, and think in terms of brain health and food choices every day. Laich and Blatner teamed up to offer advice on which foods to embrace and which foods to avoid:
What’s GREAT to eat:
You don’t have to sacrifice taste or variety to eat brain-healthy. Aim for a balance including protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates/sugars like whole grains and other high-fiber foods.
• “Good” fats (mono- and polyunsaturated fats) keep blood flowing smoothly, which means more oxygen reaches your brain.
• Omega-3 fatty acids provide the building blocks for nerves and brain cells.
o Fish (wild salmon, halibut, mackeral, trout or tuna)
o Flax seeds/flax seed oil
• Dark-skinned vegetables and fruits are chock-full of antioxidants which protect delicate brain cells from free radicals, which can destroy cell structures and allow infection and disease — like cancer — to take hold.
o Dark-skinned vegetables include spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beets, onion, corn, eggplant and red bell pepper
o Dark-skinned fruits include blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, prunes, raisins, plums, oranges, red grapes, cherries and goji berries
• Foods that are high in protein and fiber supply a steady, slowly absorbed flow of nutrients to the brain, which keeps you from experiencing energy surges and crashes. These include:
o Baked or grilled lean cuts of meat and poultry, without skin
o Nuts, especially almonds, pecans and walnuts
• Fiber-rich and low-calorie foods fill you up and help prevent overeating, which can make you lethargic and groggy.
What NOT to eat:
• Simple carbohydrates like refined white flour, white table sugar and corn syrup
• Trans fats and saturated fats
• High-fat dairy products like whole milk and cheese
• Meat, poultry or seafood with skin on
• Coconut, palm and palm kernel oils
• Fried foods (especially in restaurants, where you don’t know what kind of frying oil is used)
If you’re planning to make adjustments to your diet based on these tips, just be sure to implement the changes gradually rather than all at once. It’s tempting to make a big shift all at once, but Laich says changing your diet completely can make you feel deprived; making a smaller, achievable change and feeling happy with the balance will lead to better long-term results.
Blatner agrees: “It’s about progress, not perfection,” she says. “You don’t have to eat perfectly every day. As you progress, you’ll see increases in concentration, focus, energy — both immediately and cumulatively over time.”