Science has not yet uncovered any one thing — food, gene, or environmental factor — proven to prevent cognitive decline, but diet is one of the easiest changes we can make to help keep our brains in good shape.
Eating well in your 50s, 60s and beyond can help reduce the damage that causes dementia. Here are some dietary tips you can try out – they could make all the difference…
A natural and varied diet
■ Ideally eat at least five or six different (naturally) coloured foods at each meal – more if you can manage. This will give you a range of antioxidants, to protect against oxidative stress in the brain. You don’t actually need to know about nutrition to get plenty of antioxidants – just eat a variety of brightly coloured foods. Think red apples, yellow egg yolks, dark green veg, black olives, not to mention dark chocolate and red wine.
■ Focus on vegetables, salads and fruits. Your plate should be at least half these. Then add to that grains, nuts, seeds, pulses, fish, good oils, dairy and meats. Embrace local, seasonal foods, and combine them with colourful foods, brain-supporting oils and healthy proteins.
■ Giving up foods, such as meat, dairy or grains, can compromise your nutritional balance as you get older. Unless diagnosed with a specific need to avoid them, take care and get good advice from a qualified professional.
The brain can’t achieve anything unless it’s supplied with fuel, most of which comes from carbohydrates and protein. Plan to eat both at every meal…
The best fuel comes from starchy vegetables, grains, pulses, dairy foods and fruits. Sugars are carbohydrates too and are sources of brain fuel, but added sugar (in drinks, snack foods and recipes) should be minimised, especially for younger people (although they can actually be helpful in later life).
There should be a portion of protein at the centre of every meal. Dairy and pulses (lentils, chickpeas and soybeans) are excellent, because they supply both protein and carbohydrate, but a meal with a concentrated protein (meat, eggs, chicken or fish), as well as lots of vegetables, grains and fruits, is also ideal.
5 smart store-cupboard ingredients
This has about twice the protein of rice, and it’s ‘complete’ (meaning it has all the essential amino acids), which is unique among plant foods. It’s extra-high in fibre, and a good source of minerals, including iron and zinc. The three varieties (white, red and black) are nutritionally practically the same
Walnut, extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed sesame, flaxseed, macadamia or rice bran oil… The ‘good’ fats in these oils are so important for your brain (they reduce inflammation) that it’s worth buying the best you can afford. Have a couple to hand – use premium oils for dressings and cheaper ones for cooking.
All spices contain antioxidants and many have been shown to also have helpful anti-inflammatory properties, beneficial to the brain. Use cinnamon, turmeric (fresh and grated into dishes, or ground), cumin, coriander and fennel seeds (whole seeds, as well as ground, if you have space for both) and paprika (sweet, hot or smoked, whichever you choose, it’s packed with antioxidants).
4. Tinned fish
All tinned fish contains the same omega-3 fats as fresh products, so having them in the pantry is a good idea.
Walnuts are especially high in omega-3 fats, but all nuts contain protein, antioxidants and an array of super useful, brain-supporting nutrients.
No matter how important nutrition is to brain health, nothing is as powerful as regular physical activity. It does so many things, including maximising blood flow through the brain, helping to get nutrients to cells. Plus it’s the combination of protein from food and activity that boosts muscle – as you age, you must exercise and eat more protein to build muscle.