Healthy Eating for Brain Health – What to Eat & What to Avoid

Let’s talk about healthy eating for brain health. What does the latest research say about the connection between what we eat and our brain health? Are there specific foods we should be eating? Are there foods we should avoid? These are the questions I looked into for this article and for an upcoming presentation on Healthy Eating for Brain Health.

title for brain health eating

There are over 800,000 Canadians living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder that destroys brain cells and causes thinking ability and memory to deteriorate. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, Alzheimer’s is NOT a normal part of aging. Fifty per cent of Alzheimer’s may be the result of modifiable risk factors such as smoking, depression, cognitive inactivity, physical inactivity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

My dad has Alzheimer’s and I’m in my 50’s. It’s all the motivation I need to further explore the connection between lifestyle and brain health. Here’s what I found.

Can Diet Reduce Risk of Getting Alzheimer’s?

Yes. Healthy eating improves your general health and helps maintain your brain function and slow cognitive decline.

A study published by the National Institute on Aging in September 2015 showed “Being obese or overweight in middle age has been linked to increased risk of dementia.” 

Dr. Carol Greenwood senior scientist at Toronto’s Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences says “Poor eating habits and a lack of physical and intellectual stimulation are stronger drivers for dementia than genetics alone.”

In other words, our risk of getting Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is not just a matter of genetics – our lifestyle matters. What we eat matters.

Current research suggests that there are general eating patterns and certain groups of food we should eat and limit. Diets that focus on high fibre fruits and vegetables, healthy fats from olive oil, nuts and fish, whole grains and legumes are our best options for healthy brains. (see more below)

The US National Institute on Aging reminds us that there are no specific, individual foods we should eat to improve brain health and reduce our risk “so far, there is no evidence that eating or avoiding a specific food can prevent Alzheimer’s disease or age-related cognitive decline.”

Dr. Carol Greenwood who co-authored Mindfull, the first science-based cookbook for the brain says “When it comes to brain health, there is currently no evidence that any one single food within the same class is superior to other similar food.” For example, researchers may recommend we eat dark leafy greens – but they can’t specify if kale is better than spinach or swiss chard or beet greens. As Dr. Greenwood points out, eating many different types of dark leafy greens rather than zoning in on only one type, gives you the broadest possible combination of beneficial food components.

To date, the evidence supports…

Healthy eating is critical for brain health.

There are recommended eating patterns and groups of food we should eat more and less of.

What Is Healthy Eating for Brain Health?

Current evidence supports that diets featuring a variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, fish, nuts and low fat dairy products, such as those recommended for treating or preventing heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other conditions are also beneficial for brain health. These include the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet which greatly influenced Canada’s new Food Guide. Dr. Carol Greenwood, says “Canada’s new food guide aligns with brain healthy eating and dementia risk reduction.”

These diets are beneficial because they reduce oxidative stress and inflammation which cause damage to brain cells. Researchers are also looking at foods that help reduce or prevent plaque build up in the brain (ie reducing saturated & trans fats).

Research into these diets led to further study and refinement at the Rotman Research Institute who developed the Brain Health Food Guide and Rush University Medical Center who developed the MIND Diet. Here’s a look at both of their recommendations.

Brain Health Food Guide – by Rotman Research Institute

Baycrest Rotman Research Institute developed an easy-to-read guide with advice for healthy eating for your brain based on current evidence. The resource is co-authored by Dr. Greenwood and Dr. Matthew Parrott of Baycrest in collaboration with nutritionists involved with the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA) and is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Click here or on the images to download your free copy.

Baycrest list of recommendations for healthy eating for the brain

Baycrest guide showing foods to eat and to limit for brain health

The MIND Diet – by Rush University Medical Centre

The MIND diet blends two heart-healthy diets — DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet. These diets are often recommended for heart health, but Dr. Martha Clare Morris who was a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University in Chicago and her team focused on foods that aid in brain health. Their blending and modifications resulted in the “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay” or MIND diet. (Sadly, Dr. Morris passed away in early 2020, but her work on the MIND Diet at Rush University continues.) Their observational research showed that eating certain foods (and avoiding others) slowed brain aging by 7.5 years, and lessened the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s important to note that the research into the MIND diet, to date, has been observational. They have not determined exact cause and effect relationships between foods and specific nutrients and brain health. In general terms, what this means is that they observed what people ate and compared it to their cognitive decline over time and then made observations like “people who ate more of this and less of this had less cognitive decline”. This is a simplification, they did this in a much more scientific, but I just want to make the point that current research cannot tell us specifically to “eat this food, because it does this and will eliminate risk of Alzheimer’s”.  That kind of cause and effect research is the next step.

So, based on observational studies, here are the recommendations from the MIND Diet from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center.

list of foods to eat and limit on MIND Diet

If you apply those recommendations to a weekly meal plan with 3 meals and 2 snacks per day, it would look something like this Healthy Eating for the Mind Meal Plan

One of the pages from the handouts shared in the workshop on Healthy Eating for your mind. Underlined text takes you to recipe.

NOTE: All of the leading research organizations referenced in this article clearly state that diet alone is not enough to protect our brain health. They all mention exercise, reduced stress, adequate sleep, intellectual stimulation and social/emotional well being as important to overall brain health and wellness.

What About Super Foods?

There are no such things as super foods. Eating a variety of foods in the recommended groups (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) is the best strategy. This approach offers greater variety in nutrients and is also much tastier, affordable, accessible and enjoyable.

Leading researchers agree. The key to success is to enjoy variety within certain groups of food in combination with exercising, getting enough rest, reducing stress, being socially active, stimulating your mind and so on.

Dr. Carol Greenwood says “When it comes to brain health, there is currently no evidence that any one single food within the same class is superior to other similar food.”

Nikolaos Scarmeas, MD, an associate professor of neurology at Columbia University, supports the idea that overall eating patterns rather than specific foods are important. In an article for Health Magazine he stated, “We don’t eat foods or nutrients in isolation, we eat in combination with other foods so there is value in dietary patterns.”

Dr. Martha Clare Morris said “We can‘t go out and say, ‘Eat these things and you are protected from Alzheimer’s,’ but there is almost no downside to increasing your physical activity and consuming a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fish, healthy oils, nuts, and seeds.” 

When we see certain foods making headlines, it’s exciting and holds promise for possible future discoveries – but it is not a magic bullet.

What About Taking Supplements?

Unless prescribe by your doctor or you have specific underlying conditions the consensus is that getting nutrients from food is better than from supplements.

According to Dr. Martha Morris, “There is not data to support that taking a vitamin supplement improves your cognitive function.”

The National Institute on Aging says “Despite early findings of possible benefits for brain health, no vitamin or supplement has been proven to work in people. Overall, evidence is weak as many studies were too small or too short to be conclusive.”

“What we do know is that a healthy lifestyle—one that includes a healthy diet, physical activity, appropriate weight, and no smoking—can maintain and improve overall health and well-being. Making healthy choices can also lower the risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, and scientists are very interested in the possibility that a healthy lifestyle might have a beneficial effect on Alzheimer’s as well.” The National Institute on Aging

Want to learn more about what to eat and how to prepare healthy meals that follow the guidelines mentioned in this article? Join me in a workshop on Healthy Eating for Your Mind. Register here for a Zoom Workshop offered by the MacDonald Headingley Rec District on Thursday, January 28, 2021 from 1-2 pm.

brain health workshop details

Article first published in 2016 and updated in January 2021.

Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. You’ll get recipes, practical tips and great food information like this. Getty is a Professional Home Economist,  speaker and writer putting good food on tables and agendas.  She is the author of Manitoba’s best-selling Prairie Fruit Cookbook, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks Lucy! So glad you checked it out, you’ll get more details here than on my facebook page.

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