The connection between poor diet and reduced physical health has been scientifically established since the 1980s. Conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, most cancers and stroke have been strongly linked to lifestyle factors, particularly a diet high in saturated animal fats and simple carbohydrates. Vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish are commonly associated with a healthy diet, whereas high sugar, fried foods and fatty red meat are notorious no-nos.
What has been less well recognized until recently is that the same nutritionally poor diet has implications for brain health by increasing the risk of cognitive decline, such as vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Data from the May 2015 Neurology Journal showed that older adults with the healthiest diets (defined as those containing a high amount of fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish, moderate alcohol use and minimal red meat) were 24 percent less likely to experience cognitive decline when compared to those with the least healthy diets.
Neuroscientists are now focused on understanding the underlying mechanisms of how diet affects brain functioning. Researchers hypothesize that poor nutrition is likely to reduce the brain’s ability to grow healthy new brain cells, lessen brain cells’ ability to recover from oxidative stress, including free radicals and, perhaps most importantly, increase inflammation.
While some amount of inflammation is required to support normal immune function and to assist in the body’s repair processes after injury, chronic low-grade inflammation is thought to interfere with a healthy cerebrovascular system, which is essential for optimal brain functioning. Inflammation in the small vessels of the brain is thought to reduce blood flow via poor oxygenation and lower glucose delivery. In turn, brain cells cannot work properly and succumb to disease and dysfunction.
Previous trends of taking supplements for brain health have been replaced by the recommendation for consistent cardiovascular exercise, stress management and eating a whole-foods diet rich in macronutrients with the goal of reducing systemic inflammation.
Significantly reducing the foods you eat that are made with processed seed and vegetable oils (corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed oils) found in highly processed foods, such as baked goods, crackers and cereals, is one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal. Also, consider adding the following foods into your diet for a proactive, and tasty, way to promote brain health:
- Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines)
- Berries/deep colored fruits (blueberries, tart cherries)
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach, collard greens and Swiss chard)
- Cruciferous (cabbage-family) vegetables
- Chocolate with at least a 70 percent cacao content