We are often told that age is but a number. We argue that beneath wrinkled skin and graying hair are brave, young souls. Although our spirits may not falter, our minds eventually slow and our bodies no longer sustain a life of risk taking and adventure. The onset of these inevitable changes, however, can be delayed by healthy sleep habits, exercise routines and, most importantly, diet.
The brain is ultra-sensitive to the foods and drinks we consume as their nutrients, or lack thereof, either boost brain power or weaken it. A diet heavy in pre-packaged foods and sugary drinks, for example, wreaks havoc on brain function as the refined sugars and carbohydrates found in processed foods are extremely lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, flavonoids and other vitamins essential to brain health.
Kirsten Romero, MS, RDN is the wellness dietician for Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia and is an expert at designing meal plans for optimal cognitive function. Romero is an advocate for the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, or MIND, diet and provides both group education and individualized nutrition coaching to all of Senior Services’ congregate meal sites, including Meals on Wheels participants.
Honing in on her expertise about brain-boosting, Mediterranean-style eating patterns, Romero shares the top 10 foods for brain health. These eats possess the nutritional superpowers needed to improve memory, increase learning capacity, delay cognitive ailments such as dementia and Alzheimer’s and more.
1. Fatty Fish
Both Romero and MIND diet guidelines stress the importance of adopting a diet rich in seafood, specifically salmon, sardines, trout, tuna and mackerel. Consume at least two 3-ounce servings per week of grilled or baked fish to keep your brain nourished with docosahexaenoic acid and other powerful omega-3 fats.
For those who prefer land-based proteins over seafood, poultry is the perfect brain-healthy alternative to fish. Unlike red meat, poultry such as chicken, turkey and duck are low in saturated fat and rich in vitamin E. Avoid eating fried poultry to limit your intake of unwanted saturated fats and enjoy two 3-ounce servings of baked or grilled poultry per week.
Falling into this category are countless members of the berry family including strawberries, blueberries, goji berries and cherries, all of which are loaded with anti-inflammatory antioxidants and flavonoids. Romero suggests buying locally grown fruits from farmers markets or community-supported agriculture programs, and, when in-season, buy organic as the fruits may have higher levels of nutrients. At least two 1-cup servings of berries—fresh, dried or frozen—should be enjoyed weekly.
4. Leafy Greens
Color is key when it comes to leafy vegetables. Greens that are darker in color indicate higher levels of essential vitamins and antioxidants that stave off cognitive decline. Spinach, kale and collard greens are among the darkest and should be enjoyed daily. If salads aren’t your forte, sneak one serving of these antioxidant-heavy greens into other dishes such as omelets, smoothies or whole grain pastas and sandwiches.
5. Nuts and Seeds
Much like berries, there are a myriad of nut and seed variations. Romero recognizes walnuts for having a high concentration of omega-3 fats in addition to the other vitamins and healthy fats typically found in nuts. Incorporate 1 ounce of these savory seeds, raw or roasted, into your diet at least five times per week.
6. Whole Grains
The debacle over whole wheat versus whole grain ends here. Romero explains that whole grains are rich in phytochemicals, vitamin E and antioxidants, all of which are critical for a sound mind. Whole grains can be found in several food sources such as breads, fortified cereals, quinoa and other loose grains and should be consumed three times per day.
Turns out your evening vino may do more than just help you unwind from a long day’s work. Wine, and reds in particular, shows high levels of resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant that enhances memory. Per MIND diet regulations, Romero suggests imbibing one glass of wine daily.
Beans truly are the magical fruit. Whether they’re black, white or garbanzo, beans are an excellent source of vitamins and antioxidants. The legumes also boast hearty levels of protein and fiber but are low in calories and fat. Consuming 1/2 cup four times per week will help to regulate glucose levels and monitor glucose’s journey across the blood brain barrier.
9. Olive Oil
Recent developments show that the monosaturated fats found in extra virgin olive oil protect the brain from toxins and amyloid plaque buildup known to cause Alzheimer’s disease. Hearty, monosaturated fats contribute to a healthy blood flow, improve cognitive functions by diminishing the risk of hypertension and are an excellent source of vitamin E. Romero recommends using 2–3 tablespoons of olive oil for cooking.
10. Dark Chocolate
Who says sweets can’t be healthy too? Romero coins dark chocolate as another superfood for its anti-inflammatory benefits, high flavanol levels and mood-boosting abilities. As a part of the MIND diet, dark chocolate should be enjoyed several times a week, or even daily, in 1/2-ounce to 1-ounce servings.
Learn more about Kirsten Romero and the Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia by visiting SSSEVa.org.