Eating for a Healthy Brain

Lori Daiello, PharmD, ScM and Charles Denby

Did you know that your brain makes up only two percent of your body weight, but uses 20 percent of the oxygen and nutrients in your blood? Supplying your brain with all the nutrition it needs requires a dense network of blood vessels. Anything that is bad for your heart health can affect those blood vessels. So, it is important to remember that heart-healthy eating is good for your brain too.

Focus on Fats in Foods

  • Saturated fats: For a healthy diet, keep foods that are high in saturated fat to a minimum. This type of fat is associated with a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. It is found in fatty cuts of beef, pork, or lamb, especially when processed into patties or sausages. Saturated fats can also find their way in to baked goods in the form of shortening, lard, and even palm and coconut oils. Be sure to check the labels of the foods you buy.
  • Man-made fats: In addition to saturated fats, be wary of consuming man-made fats, known as trans-fats. These fats do not exist in nature. Instead, they are made by food companies for industrial cooking and frying. Because trans-fats are not natural, the body has a difficult time breaking them down. In fact, they are associated with a higher risk of heart disease and inflammation.
  • Omega-3: Not all fats are bad for you. While you should limit or avoid saturated or trans-fats, Omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial. Studies have shown that regularly eating more foods that are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those in fatty fish like salmon, can decrease heart attack and stroke risk, as well as inflammation.

Reduce Inflammation

We are all familiar with inflammation that happens outside of the body. We’ve seen the redness or swelling after a cut or bruise. This type of inflammation is a normal and necessary part of healing.

Recently, scientists have learned that harmful types of inflammation can also happen inside the body and can be hard to detect. Research has shown that this “hidden” inflammation may also be a cause of illnesses, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, gastrointestinal problems, arthritis, and others. Luckily, you can reduce your risk for inflammation through a healthy diet too.

Increasingly, research has shown refined sugar to be a primary source of inflammation in our diets. Excess blood sugar interrupts our normal body processes. Eventually, the brain and other cells then become unable to use your blood glucose, which is their primary fuel. These changes are connected to the development of diabetes, a dangerous condition that also can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Unfortunately, reducing sugar in your diet is more complicated than just eliminating sugary drinks, desserts, and candies. Foods like soups and salad dressings often have added sugar. To make things more confusing, sugar can be labelled in misleading ways, such as “high-fructose corn syrup” or “evaporated cane juice.”

Your best weapon against these hidden sources of sugar may be in your pocket or purse right now. While shopping, use your smartphone to look up unfamiliar words on food labels. When you know what you are really buying, it may help you make healthier choices.

While excess sugar affects everyone, some causes of harmful inflammation can be specific to individuals. For example, although technology has allowed for the mass production of wheat, dairy, and soy as food sources, some people may not react well to foods containing one or more of those ingredients. If you always feel tired, sore, or not mentally sharp, try an “elimination diet.” Working with an allergist or dietician may help to identify troublesome foods in your diet. Eliminating those may lead to improvements in overall health and cognition.

While items like sugar and processed foods can create inflammation, the right choices can also help you. Eating whole fruits and vegetables can give your body needed fiber and something called “antioxidants.” Antioxidants are vitamins that help reduce inflammation. Their fibrous structure also helps to cleanse the digestive tract. Better still, increased fiber provided by fruits and vegetables has been shown to help decrease the types of fats in the blood that increase the likelihood of having a heart attack or stroke.

When you eat well, it is good for your whole body. 

For more information on preventing Alzheimer’s disease, visit The Rhode Island Alzheimer's Disease Prevention Registry

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