I’ve recently had to do a lot of research for a close friend to help pinpoint what foods promote overall brain health. Specifically, I’ve been searching for foods which prevent, slow or even reverse the progress of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Of the “brain-healthy” foods that experts have agreed upon, there is a common characteristic: each food is typically either high in omega-3 fatty acids, choline, flavanoids or other powerful antioxidants which help reduce inflammation. Each of these characteristics support brain health as well as having many other health benefits.
Systemic inflammation is very bad for your health and is believed to be one of the leading causes of Alzheimer’s. We should generally make food choices which, on balance, promote an anti-inflammatory response.
After scouring the Internet and my favorite food book, below is my compiled list of foods that are believed to have the greatest brain benefit. If there is a page numbers in parenthesis next to the food, it is a reference to the page in “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth”, a book which I frequently reference when assessing the quality of a particular food.
At the end of this post is a fold-up, credit-card sized image which I made and which can be printed and carried as a reference.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor and I don’t even play one on TV. I do not recommend that you change your diet without first discussing it in detail with your own doctor. That being said, I encourage you to have that conversation and take full control of your food choices.
Foods which help prevent, slow or reverse Alzheimer’s and Dementia
- Green Tea (p267) – Good source of the flavanol catechins, antioxidants which lower inflammation, and polyphenols like EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) which may help with diseases like Alzheimer’s. (available in bulk on Amazon)
- Blueberries (p101, p164) – A powerful, natural antioxidant. Helps brain neurons communicate better. “The best brain food! Just 1/2 cup per day will keep your brain young — they have been shown to actually reverse some brain deterioration.”
- Organic Raisins (p136) – Contain the flavonoid myricetin, an antioxidant. May inhibit beta-amyloid fibril formation, a key problem with Alzheimer’s disease. (available in bulk on Amazon)
- Dark Chocolate or Pure Cocoa Powder (The Conscious Life) – Contains flavonols (a type of flavanoid) an antioxidant which protects your body from daily oxidative stress, increases cerebral blood flow, lowers blood pressure and prevent damage from strokes. Milk chocolate doesn’t cut it, it must be dark chocolate with a cocoa percentage above 70% (available in bulk on Amazon)
- Cherries (The Conscious Life) – Contains the antioxidant anthocyanins which is anti-inflammatory.
- Apples (The Conscious Life) – The apple skin contains quercetin which may protect the brain from Alzheimer’s.
- Whole Eggs (p192) – One of the best sources of choline which is essential for brain function. Choline helps synthesize acetylcholine which is critical for memory and thought.
- Wild Salmon – One of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). Critical: must be wild-caught and not farm-raised. (available canned and in bulk on Amazon)
- Sardines (p211) – High concentration of omega-3 fatty acids. Because they are low on the food chain there is less risk of mercury contamination. (available canned and in bulk on Amazon)
- Seafood (p204) – Provides omega-3 fatty acids, choline, iron and iodine which are important for brain health.
- Fish Oil (WebMD) – Eating fish like salmon is better, but short of that take fish oil. Good source of anti-inflamatory omega-3 fatty acids (available on Amazon)
- Walnuts (p162) – Nutrient dense and the highest nut source of omega-3 fatty acids (ALA). Also have polyphenols, protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese. (available in bulk on Amazon)
- Flaxseed (p72, p274) – A great plant-based source of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) (available in bulk on Amazon)
- Rosemary (p289) – Prevents breakdown of acetylcholine, an important chemical in the brain needed for memory and healthy brain function. Similar to the Alzheimer’s drug Aricept. (available on Amazon)
- Turmeric (The Conscious Life) – Is anti-inflammatory and contains curcumin which may be able to remove the Alzheimer’s plaque from the brain (available on Amazon)
- Fresh Vegetable Juice (p255) – Antioxidants and anti-inflammatories which may prevent dementia, brain aging and Alzheimer’s
- Fresh Vegetables (p255) – Antioxidants, anti-inflammatories which may prevent dementia, brain aging and Alzheimer’s. Also have fiber and many important vitamins like A, C and E.
- Asparagus (The Conscious Life) - A great source of folate. A recent study found that people who were folate deficient were 3.5 times more likely to develop dementia.
- Pomegranates (p246) – High in antioxidants and helps prevent fatty deposits from forming.
- Coconut Oil (Mercola) – Provides ketone bodies as an alternative fuel for the glucose-starved brain.
- Red Wine (The Conscious Life) – Contains flavanoids and resveratrol which increase cerebral blood flow. No more than a glass a day.
- Grape Juice (Medical News Today) – Similar benefits as red wine. 100% natural grape juice may lower or delay onset of dementia.
Foods that promote bad health
- Trans Fats – Found in packed baked and frozen goods, margarine, vegetable shortening, donuts, fried foods, chips, candy, pie crusts, muffins, pre-mixed cake and pancake mix, chicken nuggets.
- Partially Hydrogenated Oils – That’s just another name for “trans fat“
- Saturated Fats – Some in meat is OK, if in packaged product it is not OK
- Red Meat – This is a bit controversial. Many would say lean read meats are healthy, whereas others would point to studies that show a strong correlation between red meat consumption and numerous diseases. I think the prudent choice is to limit red meat and opt for salmon or chicken when you can.
- Sugar – Sugar may be the most loved and over-consumed “toxin” on the planet.
- White Flour and Enriched Pasta - Highly processed and refined, most white carbs have had their fiber and nutrient-rich outer layer stripped away and have to have vitamins and minerals added back in to “enrich” the product. Most refined carbs are absorbed too quickly by the body, which quickly increases blood sugar and triggers insulin release. You are better off keeping the natural fiber and nutrients with the “whole grain” and eating brown rice and whole wheat flours and pastas. (Read more at WebMD: “The Truth About White Foods“)
- White Rice – “White rice is a whole rice grain that has been polished until just the endosperm — essentially an easily digestible starch bomb — is left. Not surprisingly, recent studies have shown that eating white rice can raise blood glucose significantly, especially if eaten often or in large quantities. One study showed an 11% increase in diabetes risk with each daily serving of white rice. If you love rice with your stir-fries, switch to brown rice. Your blood sugar will thank you.” (From RealAge: “10 Worst Foods for Your Blood Sugar“)
In general, you can avoid many of the “bad foods” above by avoiding fast food, fried foods, packaged foods and processed food.
My specific “brain saving” rules for preventing Alzheimer’s
I took these from an email I recently sent to a friend.
- Only eat between noon and 8 pm. Every day, stop eating at 8 pm, don’t start again until noon the next day. Coffee and tea are OK anytime. Don’t overcompensate during your eating window, just eat normally. The longer you can go without eating, the better. There is a lot of research which says that Intermittent fasting protects the brain from disease and allows the body time for autophagy or self-repair. (See samples of the research here, here, here, here)
- Every day at lunch have one of these (or similar):
- LUNCH OPTION 1: Rosemary or turmeric spiced salmon sandwich with spinach on whole wheat toast (you can buy salmon in a can like tuna-fish mix with some rosemary or turmeric and spread on bread with some spinach leaves).
- LUNCH OPTION 2: Rosemary or turmeric spiced egg omelet with flaxseed, red onions, peppers, mushrooms a little cheese and any other veggies you want to throw in.
- LUNCH OPTION 3: A green salad with apples or blueberries, veggies, shrimp, chicken or salmon, flaxseed and a vinagrette dressing. Go easy on the croutons and cheese, but you can put a little on for interest. Skip the bacon bits.
- DRINK: green tea, grape or vegetable juice
- Every day have a snack box of raisins
- Every day have at least one cup of blueberries, the more the better
- Every day have one small handful of walnuts
- Every day take a multivitamin, two fish oil tablets and 2000 IU of vitamin D3
- Mix ground flaxseed in everything you can tolerate
- For every appropriate dish (stews, chili, beans, even hamburgers) sprinkle on some turmeric
- Do the same with rosemary, but favor the super-spice turmeric
- Every day have one 1-ounce square of dark chocolate (60% cocoa or higher…the higher the better)
- Try for one item of seafood per day (salmon, sardines, anchovies, shrimp, clams)
- Avoid the whites (white bread, white rice, white sugar, white pasta)
Alzheimer prevention: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
This is a printable cheat-sheet I made for my friend to carry around. It is specifically targeted towards foods and activities which help prevent or slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.
When in doubt, just remember this:
- If it IS a plant: EAT IT
- If it was MADE IN a plant: DON’T