Eating the right foods — think Mediterranean diet — can cut your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as you get older. And if you’re eating a typical American diet, the time to start eating right is now.
“People who change their life in midlife and stay on a healthy diet have a much lower risk of dementia compared to people who keep following a Western diet,” says Lisa Mosconi, associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.
Alzheimer’s progresses gradually for 20 to 40 years before symptoms appear. That means you have time to make changes that can help stave off cognitive decline, even if you’re already in your 40s or 50s or even 60s.
In her research, Mosconi has examined hundreds of scans of middle-aged brains and spotted remarkable differences in their appearance, based on diet.
“Those who are on a Mediterranean diet, their brains are nice and bright and active. They show very little Alzheimer’s plaques or brain shrinkage, and they remain that way over time. For the Western diets, the brains are less active to start, and they show energy decline over time,” she says.
She says the effects of diet on the brain are especially strong in middle-aged women, since menopause has a strong effect on the brain.
“For women going through menopause, the brain can really suffer a big blow,” she says. “it’s really important to eat a diet that can ameliorate this hormone imbalance and support the brain during this tricky transition.”
What your brain wants
Mosconi outlines the foods that punch above their weight class for brain health.
1. Fatty fish
Eat more fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, trout, blue fish, sea bass, sardines, and anchovies. Fish is packed with the omega-3 fatty acids the brain needs.
“Fish is my favorite. It’s really important for the brain, especially because the brain contains a lot of fat,” she says.
And she’s not buying the “Fish costs too much” excuse. “Everybody says salmon is expensive and that’s true, but sardines are not, and mackerel is not. It’s not about price — you need to develop the habit of eating more fish,” she says.
2. Dark, leafy greens
Veggies like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, or even good-quality lettuce are loaded with antioxidants that fight the free radicals that ages your brain faster.
Most vegetables give you the most nutrients when you eat them raw. Pro tip: You should also eat them as quickly as possible, as they lose potency as they sit in the fridge.
3. Fibrous veggies
Broccoli, asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts are rich in fiber, which is key to keeping your gut and brain healthy.
Mosconi recommends at least a cup of vegetables with both lunch and dinner. It’s simple: you should eat more vegetables.
“It sounds like old-fashioned advice, but it’s true,” she says. “Vegetables should be the main part of every meal.”
Not-too-sweet fruits like citrus, berries, apples, and pears are full of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. Mosconi calls them “power fruits” because they give you a blast of nutrients without sending your blood sugar sky-rocketing.
“Fruit is everywhere, it’s easy to find,” she says. “It should be a part of everybody’s diet daily.:”
You’ll notice bananas don’t make the list. One a week is ok if you’re craving them, Mosconi says.
5. Complex carbs
Whole grains, brown rice, millet, spelt, and sweet potatoes contain glucose that is good for your brain. Plus, their fiber helps you feel full and they release their energy over time, so they can help cut cravings.
Mosconi recommends replacing your white and yellow potatoes with sweet potatoes and having two servings a day of whole grains.
Chick peas, peas, beans, and lentils are rich in fiber, protein, and good sugars. You should aim for two servings a week.
Along with traditionally cooked legumes, you can also try sprouted legumes, as well as grains and seeds. Sprouting adds healthy enzymes to the nutrients legumes contain.
What if you already eat right?
When you read that list, did you smugly congratulate yourself because you’re already eating lots of those foods? You might still have room to improve your cognitive health.
Mosconi recommends pushing your diet even more toward organic, fresh, diverse foods. That could mean organic dandelion or mustard greens, less common berries like boysenberries and goji berries, raw cacao, mesquite, or hemp oil.
Recipes for fun
Power your day from the start with breakfast toast.
Pack a ton of brain nourishment into a single meal with this rainbow Buddha bowl.
Step up your snack fix with a nourishing green smoothie.
These foods have to go
The foods Mosconi says you should steer clear of won’t surprise you — processed and packaged foods, soda, refined sugars and refined grains. “These are the opposite of what a healthy brain wants and needs,” she says. “I would say goodbye to processed foods as much as possible.”
She recommends that you introduce healthier food choices slowly: “Your body will adjust to better flavors and good-quality food. As you go off sugar, your body will learn to function without that extra stimulant. You don’t need that much sugar in food. You’ll start to notice that something tastes weirdly sweet.”