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Research over the past few decades has clearly shown that what we eat plays a major role in our brain health overall and in particular. For example, we know that people who follow certain diets (like Mediterranean or MIND diets) can protect themselves against diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and depression. We also know that inflammation in our brains (due in part to unhealthy diets) can have the opposite effect. However, it is often difficult to make a sudden transition from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet. With that in mind, making a few simple food swaps is a great way to get started on brain-healthy eating. Here are three easy ways to replace food waste with healthier alternatives for your brain.
1. Replace processed meat with fish and unprocessed alternatives
Most of us have heard that eating too much red meat can be bad for our bodies. On the other side of the spectrum, the growing popularity of diets like the “carnivore” diet has other people wondering if there are any health benefits to eating more meat.
What does the research actually say? Although the picture is somewhat confusing, several larger studies have shown that when it comes to brain function, it’s processed meat that we want to avoid. For example, an observational study in nearly 500,000 people showed that eating processed meats (such as hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and many deli meats) was linked to a higher risk of dementia, while consumption of unprocessed beef, lamb and pork had the opposite effect. .
Want to go further? Seafood, especially fish high in omega-3s like wild-caught salmon, may be even better for long-term brain health. In a meta-analysis of over 30,000 people published in 2022, researchers found that people who ate more seafood had a significantly lower risk of developing dementia.
2. Replace refined carb snacks with nuts and seeds
An important signal in recent dementia research concerns the link between metabolic health and brain health. In brain scans of people with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, there is evidence that the brain has trouble using glucose for fuel. This is linked to something called “insulin resistance”, a condition in which our body (and potentially our brain) develops problems managing blood sugar.
So how does insulin resistance develop? A major contributor is thought to be excessive consumption of foods that raise blood sugar, and processed snacks high in refined carbohydrates (eg, crackers, chips, cookies, pretzel sticks) may do just that. In a 2020 study, researchers found that people who ate afternoon snacks that raised blood sugar were at higher risk of developing dementia.
If you want to ditch refined carbs for something better for the brain, where should you look? Nuts and seeds are a great source of calories and healthier nutrients. The studied benefits of consuming nuts include better blood sugar control and a healthier weight. Nuts are high in specific fats linked to better brain health. For this reason, it has been proposed that consistent nut consumption may help offset the risk of brain disease. Some great options include almonds, walnuts, cashews (technically a seed), and pumpkin seeds.
Berries are another great substitute for sugary, processed carbs. They are rich in plant nutrients called polyphenols, which have been linked to better brain health. Additionally, berries tend not to raise blood sugar as much as typical refined carbohydrate snacks. One amazing example is blueberries, a particularly brain-healthy snack that can protect brain cells from age-related damage.
3. Replace sodas and energy drinks with sparkling water and unsweetened coffee
In general, we consume far more added sugar than any nutritional organization recommends. For example, the World Health Organization recommends consuming less than 5% of our calories from added sugar, but in the United States that figure is closer to 15%. Adding sugar has been linked to a wide variety of negative health outcomes, including poorer brain health, but the evidence here is perhaps most notable for sugary drinks. In addition to the risk of weight gain and metabolic dysfunction, some research suggests that sugary drinks are linked to an increased risk of developing dementia and depression.
The main reasons we enjoy sodas and energy drinks are pretty simple: we get thirsty, they taste great, and they often provide an extra hit of caffeine. So instead of trying a direct swap for basic water, some great alternatives include flavored sparkling waters (when you’re looking for a tasty thirst quencher) and switching to coffee or tea (both studied for their benefits potentials for brain function) when looking for an energy boost.
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