Eat This, Not That for Brain Health
By Nikki Doering, RD, LD
September 21, 2021
We’re going to dispel some myths today. First and foremost, brain health is important to everyone regardless of age and, here’s the best part, good nutrition can make a big difference. Truly, the more we can support our brain health the better. A lot of people hear that and wonder, “How do I even know if my brain is healthy or not?” That’s a great question and luckily for us, your body and mood give tons of clues and indications of a well-functioning brain or a brain needing a little extra support.
Brain Health Clues
What kind of clues? Well perhaps you’re sitting at your desk right now having jumped from project to project not quite able to dig in and focus on any of them…classic brain fog. Or maybe you have a friend suffering from depression or your child is struggling with test concentration and/or feeling anxious about school in general. Both are examples of brains that need strengthening. Then there’s the dreaded diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or those “senior moments” when recall seems to get harder as we age. The list can go on and on, but you get the idea.
Healthy Fats Support Brain Health
As a dietitian, I work with many clients who have problems with memory or focus. I also work with clients who have anxiety, depression, foggy brain, ADD/ADHD and chronic concussion issues, etc. Another thing these clients have in common? They often believe the myth that all fats are bad when, in reality, eating beneficial fats is the number one thing you need for a healthy brain.
Why? Your brain is made up of fat! Think of all the years that people have been eating low-fat and feeding low-fat foods to their children’s developing brains too. Poor quality fats impair blood flow and block energy production within brain cells. Yikes. Add on top of that all the sugar consumed through cereals, processed foods, fruit juices and carbs and you’ve got a recipe for inflammation, mood swings, focus and other issues.
Let’s go back to the beginning: what’s amazing is that we first get “brain food” through the DHA in breast milk. DHA makes up 60 percent of the fat in your brain, making it an important building block for brain cell membranes, reducing brain inflammation, and it may even help to produce new brain cells. It’s crucial for the growth and development of the brain and retina. Unfortunately, when a child gets started on solid food, his/her parents often don’t know the importance of DHA and as a result, the child’s intake of the healthy fat is dramatically reduced, even though it continues to be important throughout the elementary years, junior high, high school and college. In fact, a 2013 study from the journal Nutrients found that healthy children ages seven through nine, who received a supplement of 600mg of DHA per day saw significant improvements in reading and behavior.
Which Fats Support Brain Health
Essential fatty acids are important. Think of them like your brain’s fuel. Here are a few ideas on adding beneficial fats:
Cod Liver Oil
Remember when your grandma used to say, “Have you had your cod liver oil?” I take one teaspoon in the morning and evening with meals. This isn’t the hard-to-swallow cod liver oil of the past; it has a lemon flavor which tastes great. I love knowing that you’re directly feeding your brain and your kiddos; call it your “lemon treat”!
You’ve likely been hearing the benefits of coconut oil for quite some time, and it’s all (well mostly) true! You can easily incorporate this oil into your diet by cooking with it, throwing some in your coffee or adding a couple tablespoons into your smoothie. It tastes delicious and provides your brain extra energy! Furthermore, in her book, Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure? Mary T. Newport, a neonatologist, tells the story of how she used coconut oil to significantly improve symptoms and the quality of life for her husband Steve, who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Coconut oil contains a high concentration of a special type of fat called medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) fatty acids. When ingested, MCT fatty acids are converted into ketones by the liver and then sent to the brain to be used for fuel. Unlike glucose, ketones do not require insulin to enter the cell, so they are an important fuel for people who have insulin resistance in the brain—like those with Alzheimer’s disease. In short, ketones from coconut oil protect the brain by providing much-needed energy for brain cells.
Really, what could be better? Quality butter directly feeding your brain? It’s true! Grass-fed organic butter is a source of MCT fats and is the quickest source of brain fuel as they are easily absorbed into the body and fuel the brain with ketones (an alternative to glucose for brain energy).
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that is critical for brain health and for reducing inflammation. DHA and EPA are the two main components of omega-3. As mentioned, DHA makes up 60 percent of the fat in your brain, while EPA reduces inflammation throughout the body. Studies have shown omega-3 can be helpful for people with hypertension, heart disease, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, Crohn’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
The tastiest way to get more omega-3 in your diet is to increase your consumption of fatty fish like salmon, sardines, trout and albacore tuna. The easiest way to incorporate this fatty acid is by supplementing with 1,000mg up to 3,000mg daily. If you’re dealing with a current brain issue, you could go up to 6,000mg daily. For more on that listen to a past Dishing Up Nutrition podcast with guest Dr. Lewis, founder and President of the Brain Health Education and Research Foundation, that explored the connection between omega-3 and concussion recovery.
Small Changes Make a Big Impact For Your Brain Health
Making a few simples changes in your diet can make a big difference. If you want to think better, remember better and feel better, start cultivating a perspective of “What fat have I fed my brain today?”
Think of it this way. You wouldn’t put dirty or used oil in your car’s engine, just as you shouldn’t put that kind of oil in your brain. Now that you know the correct oils for good brain function, you are setting yourself up for success. Next comes the fun part, eating all that healthy fat by incorporating it into every meal and snack, because just like you wouldn’t let your car run out of oil you can’t do that for your brain either!
A Plan to Support Your Brain Health
Now that you know the WHAT to feed your brain, what might that look like over the course of a day? Let’s give you some meal and snack ideas to help you incorporate those brain-healthy fats into your life in a real way:
- Breakfast: cook your eggs and veggies in butter (if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, try a splash of this MCT oil for a brain boost!)
- Morning snack: portion out some Crispy Nuts or add coconut milk, coconut oil, nut butter, or avocado to a smoothie
- Lunch: top your Pumpkin Chili with sour cream or avocado slices. Or add some sprinkled cheese to this Steak Gorgonzola Salad with an olive oil dressing
- Afternoon snack: make a Green Veggie Dip or an Olive Tapenade to go with your raw snacking veggies or put some cream cheese inside some nitrate-free deli meat
- Dinner: pair wild-caught salmon with a side of veggies roasted in avocado oil or make a big batch of Spicy Coconut Stew
- Bedtime snack: slather some nut butter onto half of an apple, whip up this Healthy Apple Dip, or add cream to a half a cup of berries
Of course, there are so many versatile, delicious ways to incorporate healthy fat into meals and snacks. If you run into boredom, need some ideas on things you like, or need help getting past the “low-fat” advice of your past, myself and the other nutritionists and dietitians are a wealth of knowledge and can help you brainstorm what works in your lifestyle, for your tastebuds. Make an appointment with one of us via phone or Zoom or take the upcoming cooking class, Cooking Brain-Healthy Foods with chef Marianne. We are here to support you as you feed your brain, memory, and good moods with quality, healthy fats!
For more information on brain health, check out these resources:
- Listen: Nutrition to Heal Your Brain with special guest William J. Walsh, PhD
- Listen: Alzheimer’s Prevention: Protect Your Memory
- Read: Be Kind to Your Brain article by founder Darlene Kvist
- Learn: Building a Better Working Memory online class
- Learn: Cooking Brain-Healthy Foods virtual cooking demonstration