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Like intellectual stimulation or meditation, the right diet can make a dramatic difference in smarts and mood—today, and years down the road. Here’s how to fuel your way to clearer, happier thinking.
In order for you to read this article, fall in love, get into Extended Triangle Pose, breathe, or even just exist, billions of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain are in a constant state of giving and receiving messages to and from each other. In fact, the neurons’ reach and exchange of messages extend throughout your entire body. Message pings like “Hand, please grab the steering wheel” or “Hey, it’s your neuron neighbor, sending over serotonin so we can feel good” are sent every millisecond of every day. To power this infinitely complex system, your brain recruits a whopping 2o percent of your caloric intake (though at 3 pounds it comprises a mere 2 percent of your body weight).
To keep you sharp, brain cells rely on an army of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. For example, magnesium ensures that messages are exchanged between neurons so you can learn and create memories. Unfortunately, half of Americans aren’t getting enough magnesium, and we’re likewise falling short on other nutrients critical to brain health. “A nutritious diet can make you sharper, help stave off depression and dementia, and even reduce the amount your brain shrinks as a natural part of aging,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and author of Eat Complete. “But the typical American diet of highly processed foods made of refined carbs, excess sugars, and the wrong fats do es just the opposite. In fact, it’s been linked to a smaller hippocampus—the area of the brain involved in memory and regulating emotions.”
Among the top ways diet can help your noodle is by warding off two of its mortal enemies: chronic inflammation (when your immune system is amped up and always on the attack) and vascular disease (a condition in which blood vessels become damaged and can interrupt or limit blood supply, including to the brain). Both of these conditions can lead to depression, dementia, and stroke. Short-term inflammation is a good thing—immune cells in the brain called microglia fire off substances that zap infection and in other ways protect the brain. But with chronic inflammation, microglia go awry and release inflammatory compounds, even when there is no infection. Over time, these substances destroy healthy tissue, such as brain tissue, instead of protecting it.
Fortunately for us, one of the world’s most delicious diets—the Mediterranean-style of eating—has the best research creds when it comes to brain health (see “Mediterranean Diet Basics,” right). Eating this way makes it 40 percent less likely you’ll develop Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia; the diet also cuts your risk of depression and stroke by about a third, according to a 2013 review in the journal Annals of Neurology. “The traditional Mediterranean diet is rich in powerful antioxidants like vitamin C in oranges and tomatoes, carotenoids in spinach and cantaloupe, vitamin E in olive oil and almonds, and anti-inflammatory compounds like omega-3 fatty acids in fish,” says Catherine Féart, PhD, researcher in epidemiology and nutrition at INSERM (the French national institute of health and medical research) and at the University of Bordeaux, France. “These nutrients protect the arteries leading to the brain, as well as the brain itself. The earlier you adopt this way of eating, the better—although it can benefit you even if you start it in old age.”
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Féart’s research found that this diet appears to preserve white matter, which makes up half of your brain. White matter includes protective sheaths around brain cells, and is involved in learning and behavior. For nine years, she tracked a group of Bordeaux residents who began the study around age 65. Those with the most-Mediterranean eating pattern not only had more white matter intact, they had the brain power of someone ten years their junior.
Bottom line: What’s on your plate directly correlates to how you feel, think, and age. To help you stay sharp and happy, we’ve loaded up recipes with multiple nutrients that are critical to healthy brain function. It’s a flavorful, smart way to feed your hungry brain.
Tomatoes and Eggs with Kale Pesto
In addition to supplying you with vitamin B12, eggs are high in choline, a nutrient that forms one of the principal brain neurotransmitters involved in learning and memory. Plus, tomatoes and kale supply brain-cell-protecting vitamin C, and pumpkin seeds are chockfull of attention-supporting iron, as well as magnesium to keep brain messages pinging at top speed.
Lemony Trout with Quinoa-Bean Salad
Trout is a super-rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help nerve cells in the brain communicate better and may keep the arteries that service the brain clear. Plus, this meal gives you a whopping 12 grams of satiating, gut-friendly fiber per serving—about 40 percent of your daily recommended value—thanks in part to black beans, which are also super-rich in folate, a nutrient critical for general brain-cell function.
Spinach Salad with Crab and Yogurt Ranch Dressing
Deficiencies in magnesium (found in cashews), folate (spinach), and zinc (crab) have all been linked to depression. Get a healthy dose of these mood-supporting nutrients to feel, and think, your best.
Raspberries are among the fruits that pack the highest fiber content. When paired with an oat topping, each serving of this fruity dessert supplies 6 grams of gut-friendly fiber. Plus, antioxidant-rich turmeric adds a hint of tangy flavor and may boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports neuronal growth.
Janis Jibrin is a writer and registered dietitian based in Washington, DC. Jennifer Iserloh is a holistic health coach based in New Jersey who developed recipes for the book Eat Complete.