What we eat can help or harm us. When we choose a variety of colorful, vitamin-rich foods, we are feeding our bodies and our brains the fuel that will energize us and keep us sharp for years to come.
As we all have heard, eating diets high in cholesterol and saturated fats are bad for us. But did you also know that there is a connection between diets high in saturated and trans fats and poor memory?
According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, diets high in cholesterol and fat might speed up the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. These sticky protein clusters are blamed for much of the damage that occurs in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s Disease.
The good news is, if we incorporate more mono- and polyunsaturated fats into our daily diet, we can actually help preserve our memory. “There has been some very good research that diets that are high in healthy fats, low in saturated fat and trans fats, and rich in whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and nuts are good for the brain and the heart,” says Maria C. Carrillo, PhD, senior director of medical and scientific relations at the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association.
One way to eat healthier is the Mediterranean diet, which includes foods that are high in healthy unsaturated fats (olive oil, fish, and nuts). Researchers out of Columbia University Medical Center in New York City have shown that this diet may be linked to lower risk of the mild cognitive impairment that can progress to Alzheimer’s.
The foods suggested in this diet may reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and other vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, which means you can actively lower your risk for brain and heart diseases.
The Mediterranean diet includes several components that might promote brain health:
- Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil help improve the health of blood vessels, reducing the risk for a memory-damaging stroke.
- Fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lower levels of beta-amyloid proteins in the blood and better vascular health.
- Moderate alcohol consumption, such as a glass of red wine a day, raises levels of healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Alcohol also lowers our cells’ resistance to insulin, allowing it to lower blood sugar more effectively. Insulin resistance has been linked to dementia. However, it is important to drink responsibly.
Health.com explains why these, as well as several other delicious foods, can keep your whole body—including your brain—healthy.
- Foods rich in Vitamin E – Healthy vegetable oil-based salad dressings, seeds and nuts (peanuts, almonds and hazelnuts, for instance), nut butters, and whole grains. Vitamin E may protect neurons or nerve cells from deteriorating, which can ward off the cascade of events that lead to cognitive deterioration.
- Fish – Salmon, mackerel, tuna and other fish are rich in heart – and brain – healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA. DHA is very important for normal functioning of neurons.
- Dark green leafy vegetables – Kale, collard greens, spinach, and broccoli are good sources of Vitamin E and folate. We already shared the benefits of Vitamin E above, and folate may protect the brain by lowering levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood. High levels of homocysteine may trigger the death of nerve cells in the brain.
- Sunflower seeds – Again, these are high in Vitamin E. One ounce of dry-roasted sunflower seeds contains 30% of your recommended daily intake. Sprinkle them on a salad or eat a handful for a snack.
- Berries – The latest research presented at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston found that blueberries, strawberries, and acai berries may help put the brakes on age-related cognitive decline by preserving the brain’s natural “housekeeper” mechanism, which wanes with age. This mechanism helps get rid of toxic proteins associated with age-related memory loss.
To get you started on your way to a healthier you, try these sample Mediterranean meals:
- Whole-grain muesli with fresh berries and almonds OR
- 6 oz. Greek yogurt topped with blueberries
- Greek salad with grilled chicken OR
- Whole-grain pita with 2 tbsp. hummus and tomatoes
- Roasted salmon with tomato-olive tapenade, sautéed spinach with pine nuts and raisins, poached pears OR
- Broiled chicken with garlic and lemon, asparagus
Of course, along with a healthy diet, it is important to exercise regularly in order to maintain weight, reduce stress, and ward off a host of diseases. By including the foods listed above in your diet, and choosing an exercise that you enjoy, you will be well on your way to enjoying many more years of retirement.