Categories: Neurology

Best Diets for Brain Health by Neurologists

Neurology and Diet

Have you ever imagined how much your brain works to keep things running like clockwork? Although it takes up only 2% of a human adult’s weight, it uses up almost 20% of the body’s energy output. This energy is drawn from the food we eat; hence our diets play an important part in how our brains perform.

Food is the “fuel” that provides the right nutrition for brain health and cognitive performance. It’s what drives the brain to perform all your daily tasks. That’s why it’s so important that you choose what you eat carefully since what you eat, directly affects your brain functions.

Research has found out that diet, along with exercise, has been a key factor in structuring the evolution of the brain and its cognitive capacity for thousands of years. For example, diets high in Omega-3 fatty acids are found to positively affect cognitive processing of the brain whereas diets high in saturated fats have been found to negatively affect the cognitive processing of the brain.

Have you ever wondered what controls your sleep and appetite or your sensations to pain? Why is it that consuming some food elevates your mood or helps you in fighting depression. It’s the work of a neurotransmitter called “Serotonin” and how it impacts the brain’s neural chemistry.

Around 95% of Serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract which, along with neurons, contributes to your emotions. These neurons and Serotonin are affected by good bacteria that can be found in your intestines which help in protecting the intestinal layer by driving bad bacteria out. So if you choose a diet that promotes Serotonin production, then it helps in keeping your anxiety, stress, and mental balance. For example, studies have found out that the risk of depression is about 25%-35% lower in the case of traditional diet options such as the Mediterranean diet which promotes Serotonin production as compared to other Western diets.

Essential Food Groups of a Brain Healthy Diet

Neurology and diet are integrally linked, so choosing the right diet is extremely important for enhancing your brain health. Studies have found out that a balanced diet plays an important role in improving heart and brain health and reducing the chances of neurological problems and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Diabetes.

A balanced diet consists of brain food i.e. food which is good for nerves and muscles.

The elements that make up a balanced brain-healthy diet are:

  • Complex Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the main suppliers of glucose which provides energy to the body. Starchy foods such as whole-grain bread and fibers like Ragi are better since they’re complex carbohydrates which means that they release energy slowly and maintains stable brain functioning. Choosing whole-grain foods such as whole-grain bread instead of white bread and avoiding sugary food is advisable.
  • Essential fatty acids: They are extremely important since they contain a majority of the fat content in the brain. Omega-3 found in fish and flaxseeds and Omega-6 found in poultry, eggs, and avocado are the most common fatty acids. It’s better to avoid trans fats or hydrogenated fats such as those found in cakes and biscuits since they try to obstruct the functioning of the essential fatty acids.
  • Amino acids: Amino acids constitute the neurotransmitters in the brain which help regulate your moods. For example, milk and oats contain amino acid tryptophan, which produces Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that controls sleep and happiness.
  • Vitamins and minerals: They are important for the proper functioning of the body and lack of vitamins and minerals can affect your brain functions and mood. Vitamins such as folate and B12 are important for the proper functioning of the nervous system. A deficit in these vitamins can lead to memory problems, fatigue, weak muscles, mouth ulcers, and psychological problems.

Popular Brain Healthy Diets

There are several brain diet which helps in relieving neurological pain and enhancing brain health. Below, we will be discussing two of the best diets for brain health as recommended by experts.

  • Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet originated in the 1960s and is one of the best diets for mental health. Research has discovered that this diet is adopted in countries such as Greece and Italy and plays a vital role in decreasing the number of deaths from strokes and heart attacks as compared to the American countries.

A Mediterranean Diet is a traditional cuisine from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This diet is high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and olive oil.

The basic components in a Mediterranean diet are:

  • Daily consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats
  • Weekly consumption of poultry, eggs, cheese, and yoghurt
  • Moderate consumption of dairy products
  • Limited consumption of red meat
  • Avoiding food such as sweetened beverages, processed food, and refined oils

Here’s a detailed classification of what a Mediterranean diet includes:

Healthy Foods

  • Vegetables – Tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, onions, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cucumber, and kale
  • Fruits – Apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, oranges, dates, and melons
  • Nuts and seeds – Almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds
  • Legumes – Beans, lentils, peas, pulses, and chickpeas
  • Tubers – Sweet potatoes, potatoes, turnips, and yam
  • Whole grains – Whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, whole-grain bread, and pasta
  • Fish and seafood – Fish like sardines, tuna, trout, mackerel and seafood such as oysters, shrimps, crabs, and mussels
  • Poultry – Chicken, turkey, and duck
  • Eggs – Duck, quail, and chicken eggs
  • Dairy – Greek yoghurt, and cheese
  • Herbs and spices – Garlic, basil, mint, sage, rosemary, mint, nutmeg, and cinnamon
  • Healthy Fats – Extra virgin olive oil, avocados, olives, and avocado oil

Unhealthy Foods to Avoid

  • Added sugars – Soda, candies, and ice-cream
  • Trans fats – Margarine and processed foods
  • Refined grains – White bread, pasta from refined wheat
  • Refined oils – Soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and canola oil
  • Processed meat – Sausages and hot dogs

Beverages to consume

  • Water
  • Red Wine (1 glass per day)
  • Coffee
  • Tea

Now that you know what foods to indulge and avoid in a Mediterranean diet, let’s look at a sample diet plan:

  • Breakfast – Oatmeal with raisins or Greek yoghurt with strawberries or omelette with vegetables
  • Lunch – Whole grain sandwich with vegetables or tuna salad or lasagna
  • Dinner – Tuna salad dressed in olive oil or lasagna or broiled salmon with brown rice and vegetables or grilled lamb with baked potato
  • Mind Diet

The Mind Diet is one of the ideal diets to improve brain health since it’s designed to prevent reduced brain functioning and dementia. It’s a combination of a Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). It stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.

It’s considered to be a good diet for brain health since researchers have discovered that it can reduce the chances of heart diseases and lower the blood pressure. Following a combination of both diets helps to make the diet suggestions more specific. For example, fruits, in general, are found to have an impact on brain function, however, berries are known to be the most beneficial. So, the diet focuses on recommending berries rather than fruits in general.

As per the MIND diet, there are 10 healthy foods to eat and 5 unhealthy foods to avoid. Here they are:

Healthy Food

  • Green, leafy vegetables – Six or more servings of kale, spinach, and salads per week
  • Non-starchy vegetables – Carrots, lettuce, broccoli, and onion once a day
  • Beans – Four servings of soybeans, lentils, and beans per week
  • Berries – Strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries twice a week
  • Nuts – Five servings of hazelnuts, walnuts, cashew nuts, and macadamia nuts per week
  • Olive oil – Using olive oil as the main cooking oil
  • Whole grains – Quinoa, oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and bread thrice in a day
  • Fish – Salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel, and tuna once a week
  • Poultry – Chicken and turkey twice a week
  • Wine – One glass of red and white wine in a day

Unhealthy Foods to Avoid

  • Cheese – Limited to once per week
  • Red Meat – Not more than three servings per week
  • Butter – Limited to 14 gms daily
  • Fried Food – Fast food consumption once per week
  • Desserts – Not more than four servings of ice-cream, pastries, cakes, doughnuts, and candies per week

Diet is vital for your brain health in more ways than one. What you choose to eat ultimately affects your mental health. Opting for any of the diets mentioned above will help you in improving your brain’s cognitive performance, prevent neurodegenerative diseases and help reduce your overall stress levels and anxiety.

Dr. Arindam Das, Consultant Neurologist, Narayana Superspeciality Hospital, Howrah

Narayana Health

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