The Question: Does what we eat affect brain function?
The Verdict: Many scientists believe that eating healthily may be as good for the brain as it is for the body—but figuring out what is the best “brain food” is still a matter of research. So far, fish seems to top the list.
Fish studies have started finding some evidence. A 2005 study published in the Archives of Neurology showed that normally aging people who ate fish once a week experienced a 10 percent slower decline on cognitive tests. A previous study in the same journal concluded that people 65 and older who consumed fish once per week or more had 60 percent less risk of Alzheimer disease compared with those who rarely or never ate fish. Some scientists think the omega-3 fatty acids in fish make it brain healthy by reducing infammation. This evidence is not yet conclusive, but suggests a possible connection.
Over the last several years, vitamins have been the central focus of several studies about brain health. These studies have conflicting results. Some studies have suggested that getting enough folate and vitamins B6 and B12 can stave off decline and dementia. Yet a more recent study has shown that too much folate can increase the risk of cognitive decline. While some studies suggest that antioxidants, especially vitamins E and C, can combat the oxidative stress of older brains, others show that consumption of these vitamins makes no difference. In terms of other foods and supplements, such as green tea, gingko biloba, blueberries, spinach, apple juice and garlic, the benefits for cognitive health of these foods and others are continuing subjects of scientific study.
Finding Brain Healthy Recipes
Good nutrition is an essential part of brain fitness. Posit Science, developers of brain fitness software, recognized this and has created a great section on its website devoted to recipes featuring foods that contain nutrients—like antioxidants, flavanols and omega-3 fatty acids—that research shows can boost memory and alertness and have other benefits for brain health.
Each day of the week has a menu that includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack—that’s 28 brain healthy recipes plus five new delicious recipes to keep you full each week.
A great source of recipes is the new book, Thinkfood: Recipes for Brain Fitness, featuring 50 brain healthy recipes created by food bloggers in conjunction with Posit Science. Here’s a delicious sample to get you started.
Garlic Salmon Over Spinach
4 4-ounce salmon filets
2 tablespoons butter
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons lemon pepper seasoning
6 ounces fresh spinach
- Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Stir in 4 cloves of minced garlic.
- Sprinkle salmon filets on both sides with lemon pepper seasoning.
- Place the salmon in the pan and cook on both sides, approximately 3 minutes per side, until fish flakes when tested with a fork.
- Meanwhile, steam fresh spinach for approximately 4 minutes or until tender.
- Toss spinach with remaining 2 cloves of minced garlic.
- Serve the salmon filets over the spinach.
Brain-healthy foods in this recipe
Salmon is chock-full of DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid with the most evidence for brain benefits. Almost any salmon is a good choice for the brain, not just because of high good-for-you DHA levels but also because of relatively low levels of bad-for-you mercury. Wild salmon is probably a better choice than farmed salmon, due to lower levels of PCBs. Spinach and garlic may add to the brain benefits of this recipe. Tip: Leftover salmon does not have to go to waste. Try adding any leftovers to scrambled eggs along with sauteed onions, green peppers, and grated Swiss cheese for a delicious breakfast the next morning!