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How to easily add brain-boosting foods to your diet

We all know eating nutritious food is good for your body, but your food choices can play a vital role in keeping your brain healthy too.

As we’ll explain below, research indicates that a nutrient-rich diet can support both short- and long-term brain function. Many of the foods that are linked to better brainpower are found in what’s called the Mediterranean diet – named after the region’s unusually long-lived residents who formed the basis of many studies – which has been praised for its health benefits.

While there’s no firm definition of what a Mediterranean diet contains, some of its hallmarks include whole grains and legumes that have had little processing; a wide variety of fresh vegetables eaten every day; cold pressed, extra-virgin olive oil; some fish; little meat and dairy products; nuts and seeds; and low to moderate wine intake with meals.

Mediterranean diet backed by research

Associate Professor Michael Woodward, Director of Aged Care Research and the Memory Clinic at Austin Health says the Mediterranean diet is the best choice for brain health.

“In terms of preserving our brain health and reducing our risk of decline, the Mediterranean diet has been one of the best studied,” Assoc Prof Woodward says. “I go where the evidence is and the evidence is that for a normal brain, eat a well-balanced Mediterranean-type diet.”

A study published in The American Academy of Neurology in January 2017 showed that eating a Mediterranean-style diet can promote healthy brain ageing. Researchers found that older people who closely followed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume during a three-year period – the volume of the brain typically declines with age – than those who didn’t follow the diet as closely.

Meanwhile, research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in July 2017 found the brain-boosting diet is also linked to a lower risk for memory difficulties in older adults.

Other benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Past research has also shown that this type of eating pattern may help stave off heart disease, reduce bone loss in people with osteoporosis, stop overeating and protect against fatty-liver disease. It may also reduce your risk of developing prostate cancer, age-related macular degeneration (a common eye condition that causes vision loss) and various types of cancer.

While most research isn’t specific about which fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts are included in the Mediterranean diet, some studies have found that, for example, leafy greens are particularly good for brain health

Meanwhile, seeds and nuts that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts, are valued for their brain-boosting qualities – as are oily fish, including salmon, mackerel and sardines.

Meanwhile, research published in Aging Cell last month found that choline, an essential nutrient, may be beneficial in protecting the brain against Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, researchers focused on choline’s effects on the brains of female mice. They found that mice who had been given high levels of choline in their diet showed improvements in spatial memory, compared to those that hadn’t had a choline-boost to their diet. 

The main dietary sources of choline include beef and chicken liver, eggs, fresh cod, salmon, cauliflower, broccoli and soybean oil.

Eating ‘little but often’ for brain health

While this is all good advice for keeping your brain healthy, coming up with new ways to eat these foods can get more difficult over time. It may be worth trying to incorporate them in a ‘little but often’ way, so you’re getting plenty of grains, veggies, nuts, seeds and oily fish without having to make big changes to your diet.

How does ‘little but often’ work? Take your staple meals, from eggs for breakfast to sandwiches and soups for your lunch and your favourite family dinners, and simply make sure you include a portion of these brain-boosting foods.

When it comes to breakfast, add some smoked salmon to scrambled or poached eggs or throw some mushrooms and tomatoes into an omelette. If it’s a cereal day, add a handful of bran or oats with some fruits, nuts or seeds.

Meanwhile, if you’re short on time, smoked salmon sandwiches with cucumber make a great on-the-go lunch. 

Other ways to include Med-friendly foods in your diet include adding lentils or chickpeas to a stew or green salad or digging into some homemade hummus. When it comes to quick and tasty dinners, lentil patties packed full of healthy vegetables are fantastic. Plus, they make a yummy sandwich filling for the next day.

There’s no need to eat like you’re a villager on a Greek island – although it’s great if you can – as long as you keep some of the Mediterranean diet staples in your pantry and fridge and throw some into your regular meals as often as you can. You’ll be doing your brain, and your body, a favour.