Turns out eating a healthy diet and living a healthy lifestyle are good for your brain as well as the rest of your body.
“Diet and lifestyle play a big hand in our brains and how they function,” said Patricia Hunter, a registered dietitian with St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua.
To help your brain, think about eating nutrient-rich foods, foods with the most nutritional value. Think about exercising every day. And finally, think about working out your brain — puzzles, brain teasers, just being in touch with friends. All of that is beneficial for brain function, Hunter said.
“I think we wait until we’re at a point where we’re a little worried about forgetting things,” Hunter said. “I don’t think we talk about it all that much.”
“I think the biggest problem for most people is that they really and truly just want to take a pill to make everything better,” Hunter said. “Really, it’s an interaction of how we eat and how we exercise. Diet and lifestyle is what really makes a difference.”
Eating foods that reduce oxidative damage and inflammation is the name of the game. What we see in the mirror, the wrinkles on our face, that’s an example of oxidative damage. The big thing when talking about brain food is to consider which foods make us more resilient, which foods help us handle age-related diseases over the years, when our bodies are less and less able to handle that damage, Hunter said.
But first of all, a pill can’t fix an unhealthy diet.
“Sometimes, we, as Americans, like to find a pill that might solve everything, but nothing replaces a good diet and exercise,” Hunter said.
It’s the antioxidant-rich plant foods that people should focus on. The body and the brain do really respond to greater day-to-day levels of antioxidant-rich food, like berries, walnuts, grape juice, coffee, tea and red wine, Hunter said.
“Those are all very good for us,” Hunter said. “And they’re packed with antioxidants.”
Coffee is seen as a very positive thing, but people can go wrong if they’re adding a lot of cream and sugar to their coffee. It’s not so much the coffee that causes any problems, though drinking tremendous amounts of coffee every day can have troublesome side effects. A couple cups of coffee each day is a good thing, Hunter said.
When looking at antioxidant-rich foods, eat from the rainbow, Hunter said. Variety is important. Eat all different colors of fruits and vegetables: blueberries, pomegranate, kale and tomatoes. Whole grains and herbs are also recommended — a more Mediterranean-style diet, Hunter said. The idea is also to focus on healthy fats.
Studies show that herbs and spices, such as cloves, oregano and ginger, tend to help with brain function. The herbs don’t have to be fresh; dried is just fine. In India, people boast about their low rates of Alzheimer’s, because they feel it has a lot to do with the spices they use, Hunter said.
“A lot of spices help keep the brain in good shape,” Hunter said.
Think in terms of nutrients.
“In general, you want to pick foods that have the most nutrients,” Hunter said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains tend to have the least amount of calories. But they’re nutrient-rich. You want to choose nutrient-rich foods over calorie-rich foods. Cheesecakes and fried foods don’t give you the same nutritional value than if we’re focusing on a diet that’s more nutrient-rich.”
Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are worth a look.
“Everybody always wants to talk about supplements,” Hunter said. “But one has the most merits and that’s omega-3 fatty acids.”
About 25 percent of the brain is made up of DHA, which is an omega-3 fatty acid, so an omega-3 supplement is directly helping the brain. A deficiency of DHA, which is quite possible in this culture, could result in neurons shrinking in the brain, Hunter said.
“And sometimes the way we eat causes that to happen,” Hunter said.
People don’t always read the label for omega-3s, so they don’t always know how much they’re actually getting in a supplement. Step one should be to simply eat more fish. Fatty fish, like salmon, have more omega-3s. Eating fish twice a week would be a good start. There are also plant sources of omega-3, such as flaxseed and canola oil.
Much of what Americans eat is refined food — things like fast foods and white bread. The problem with refined foods is that often they have a different ratio of omegas in them, omega-3s and omega-6s in particular. Refined foods tend to have more omega-6, meaning people need more omega-3, Hunter said.
In this part of the country, most people are probably in need of more vitamin D as well. It’s not found in much food. It’s in milk, but many people aren’t heavy milk drinkers. Vitamin D has anti-inflammatory properties, so getting enough of it is important. Hunter said it’s a good idea to have your blood checked for vitamin D.
Once people get past the holidays, they are often thinking about weight loss. If someone is overweight, a 5-percent weight loss can help reduce inflammation throughout the body. To move to a healthier diet, think about whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and food with lots of fiber, which is filling — “That reduces the chances that you’ll have cravings for a lot of sugary food,” Hunter said.
St. Joseph Hospital offers a series of classes, including “Lighten Up Nashua,” which is a cooking class. The hospital also offers a class on anti-inflammatory eating. Visit www.stjosephhospital.com.