We rely on our brains every day to help us with everything we do. Our all important power centers impact our emotions, mood, memory, and so much more. Unfortunately, as we age, our brain size can shrink, which can affect learning, memory, planning, and other complex mental activities. But, luckily, neuroscience and nutrition research shows that we have some control over our brain health. We can strengthen our brains, improve our mental and emotional well-being, and even make our brain grow. And it’s all through what we eat! Food is an incredibly powerful tool that can help improve major brain functions such as memory, focus, energy, mood, sleep, and cognitive function. Unlike any other organ in your body, the brain isn’t fixed, so it can constantly change and rewire itself to become smarter, healthier, and more robust. It’s all due to a special protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), that some scientists call ‘“Miracle Gro” as it promotes brain growth. BDNF is affected by diet and nutrients; eating certain foods (see below!) can promote BDNF which helps brain cells stay alive, become more resilient and even improve mental health. On the other hand, having low BDNF levels in the brain can leave you feeling blue, easily forgetful, and impede your ability to learn. So, it’s important to eat foods that will put your brain in “grow mode,” where you’ll have strong and resilient brain cells that will survive stress and continue to thrive. So what should you eat for a healthy brain? Check out these top 12 nutrients — and the foods that provide them — to keep your noggin sharp now and as you get older.
1. Vitamin B12 Feeling tired or sluggish? You may be lacking Vitamin B12, which your body needs to make brain cells. B12 also influences the production of important mood regulators, such as serotonin and dopamine, which is why a deficiency can lead to irritability and depression. B12 comes solely from animal sources, such as fish, beef liver, yogurt, cheese, and eggs. Swap your occasional hamburger for this delicious Halloumi Cheese Grassfed Burger!
2. Iodine Are you battling with mood fluctuations? You might not be getting enough iodine. This mineral is essential for proper brain development and the production of thyroid hormones which regulate the body’s metabolism. When your body doesn’t get enough iodine, you may have low energy, poor memory, depression, ADHD, or migraines.On average, adults need around 150 mcg (micrograms), which can be found in seafood, including clams, shrimp, or sardines. Seaweed is by far the most excellent source, containing hundreds of times more iodine than fish! Swap the usual sandwich and kick off your lunch with Sardine Spaghetti with Tomato-Caper Sauce dish to meet your iodine requirements and boost your mood.
3. Magnesium Feeling uneasy and anxious? Try to up your magnesium intake. This nutrient functions as the brain’s “chill pill” by easing your mind, muscles, and nerves. A magnesium deficiency can lead to depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Government surveys show that many of us don’t eat enough of this natural antidepressant. To get your magnesium quota, you’ll need to go green! Rich sources include spinach, beet greens, collard greens, broccoli, Swiss chard, and green beans. You can also find high amounts of magnesium in whole grains, salmon, and beans. Swap your usual processed food snacks for these homemade nutritious options: Vegan Cheezy Broccoli Fritters Salmon and Veggie Wrap Power Green Smoothie
4. Calcium When you think of calcium, you probably think of bone health, right? But this essential nutrient also plays a vital role in brain health. Whether you’re riding a bike, solving a math problem, picking up your fork or doing anything physical or mental, calcium fires neurotransmitters into the brain synapse, which allows you to carry out your intended activity. Not eating enough calcium can cause slow thinking, anxiety, depression, and irritability. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans don’t consume enough calcium in their diet, probably because many of us are chronically deficient in vitamin D, which we need to process calcium. Most adults need around 1000mg which can be found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese, and greens like kale, spinach, collard and cabbage. You can also get your calcium fix from nuts such as almonds, pecans, and walnuts. Swap your usual starter, snack or lunch with these nutritious options to help you up your intake of Calcium: Easy No-Soak Homemade Beans Rainbow Veggie Wraps DIY Coconut Cream Pie Nutrition Bar
5. Vitamin D Feeling down? Soak in some sun! Vitamin D deficiency is linked to a host of mental disorders, including dementia, depression, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, and even reduced immunity. And researchers believe vitamin D deficiency may be the main culprit behind seasonal anxiety and depression that many people suffer from during the winter months. Your body can actually make its own vitamin D after exposure to the sun’s UV rays. While sunscreen is necessary for prolonged sun exposure, it’s important to note that sunscreen blocks 99 percent of the UVB rays that our skin needs to produce vitamin D. Many experts recommend getting 15 minutes of direct sun exposure daily or a few 30-minute sessions a week without sunscreen. Besides sunlight, rich food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines, along with butter, milk, mushrooms, or lard. On average adults need 600 IU (international units). Make sure to get your vitamin D levels checked during your annual medical visits. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or a snack, these super easy and delicious recipes will help you get in that vitamin D:: Chinese Egg Scallion Mushroom Omelet Smoked Tuna Inspired Scope Savory Ginger Salmon
6. Iron Iron is incredibly vital for proper brain development and in helping brain cells produce energy. Areas of the brain related to memory, learning and mood actually contain the highest concentration of iron, so we need to make sure we are getting enough of this nutrient for optimal brain health! Surprisingly, not getting enough iron is the number one nutritional deficiency in the United States. While you may think eating “iron-fortified” products are sufficient, your body can only absorb small amounts of fortified iron. Instead, our bodies prefer and can absorb large amounts of heme-iron, which is only found in animal sources. And for those who take iron supplements, you might not realize that other supplements such as zinc, calcium, magnesium, or copper actually block iron absorption. So it’s important not to rely on fortified foods or supplements for your iron supply. Why not get it from its original source? Go ahead and indulge in animal products, particularly shellfish — clams have more than 10 times the amount of iron as beef! Other rich sources include grass-feed beef, liver, and dark chicken meat. Reap in that iron with this delicious Poached Cod in Clam Soup with Leek Bacon.
7. Cholesterol You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Cholesterol? Really?” Well, cholesterol is not the evil heart disease culprit that everyone makes it out to be. In fact, a large portion of the brain is made up of cholesterol, which plays many important roles, including membrane functions, helping to make important hormones, and forming a protective layer around brain cells. And a recent study found that subjects with the highest levels of cholesterol had the best memory function! If you’re worried about your cholesterol, take note that eating cholesterol has a very small impact on your blood levels. In fact, by avoiding high cholesterol foods such as salmon or eggs, you’re missing out on some of the richest sources of top brain nutrients, as well as other nutritional benefits from these foods. So don’t be afraid of high cholesterol foods such as eggs, cheese, milk, salmon, and butter. More importantly, avoid a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and fat, as these foods are associated with heart disease. Swap your daily cereal and milk for this amazingly nutritious breakfast: Egg Omelet with Avocado Slices.
8. Vitamin A Vitamin A is involved in the production of brain cell and mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine. The only place vitamin A is found in its usable form is in animal fats. With society embracing low-fat diets, rich sources of vitamin A such as egg yolk, liver, whole milk and butter have been consumed sparingly, thus leaving many of us deficient in this brain healthy vitamin. Supplementation seems like an easy and feasible solution, however, the synthetic form of vitamin A has been linked to lung cancer along with other adverse effects. But no need to worry! Our bodies are very efficient at storing this vitamin, so daily consumption is not necessary. In fact, eating a food rich in vitamin A just a few times a month is more than enough to make sure your brain has what it needs to stay healthy. Not too keen of liver? You won’t even realize with these delicious Sneaky Liver Burgers.
9. Vitamin E This antioxidant works to protect fats in our brain from free radicals and inflammatory signals that kill brain cells. Unfortunately, over 90 percent of Americans aren’t consuming the recommended daily allowance of 15mg. Excellent sources include almonds, olives, beet greens, turnip greens, collard greens, and Swiss chard. Try these nutritious recipes rich in vitamin E: Coconut Almond Oatmeal Bars Quinoa with Caramelized Red Onions and Swiss Chard
10. Folate You’d be surprised by how much folate your brain needs. This nutrient increases the production of omega-3s, such as DHA and EPA, which can help to improve your mood. So, low concentrations of folate can lead to negative mood states, clinical depression, and fuzzy thinking. Since folate is very sensitive to heat and light, avoid cooking folate-rich foods such as spinach, kale, lentils, black beans, and beet greens; instead, eat them raw or cook them lightly. Looking for a quick snack? Swap these super delicious and nutritious kale chips for Potato Chips!
11. Fiber A lot of people associate fiber with a healthy gut. Well the brain relies on a healthy gut to extract all the nutrients it needs to function properly. Since fiber slows down digestion and releases sugars gradually, a sufficient fiber intake helps to avoid spikes in blood sugar and insulin which can have detrimental effects on the brain. In fact, studies show that diets low in fiber have been linked to depression and suicide. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans get less than half the daily recommended amount of 25g for women and 38g for men. Don’t rely on processed food for your daily fiber requirements, since added fibers do not have the same health benefits as naturally occurring fiber. Instead, consume green leafy vegetables, cruciferous plants like broccoli and cauliflower, along with fruit, nuts, seeds, and beans. Swap your occasional high sugar drinks for our delicious high fiber smoothies: Açai, Strawberries and Chia Seeds Power Smoothie Raspberries, Blueberries and Dates Smoothie Super Green Smoothie Breakfast Bowl
12. Omega-3s Most people don’t know that omega-3s actually originate from plant leaves and diets rich in them have been associated with anti-depressive, heart protective, and neuroprotective properties. Researchers have found that aging humans who consume more omega-3s have increased gray matter brain volume, as well as the newest tissue production in the area of the brain associated with happiness. So eating omega-3s can makes you smarter and happier! There is no official consumption recommendation but most of us need a minimum of 250-500mg combined EPA and DHA daily. Excellent sources include fatty fish such as sardines, salmon, and mackerel, along with eggs, grass-fed meat, butter, cheese, chicken, and pork. Swap a fried fish sandwich for these omega-3 heart healthy Wild Salmon Bacon Burgers!
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