Eating Right For Sharper Memory And Focus, And What Not To Eat
Dr. Uma Naidoo, nutritional psychiatrist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, says there’s one question that her patients repeatedly ask her: “How can I maximize the power of my brain?”
After years of studying the intricate connection between the gut and the brain, and diet and mental health, Dr. Naidoo, a brain health researcher, discovered that making healthy dietary choices can lead to improving your mood, sharpening your memory, and helping “your brain work at peak efficiency.” In contrast, poor dietary choices can lead to an increase in mental health issues, and mental health issues, in turn, can lead to poor eating habits.
Based on her work with hundreds of patients, Dr. Naidoo, author of This Is Your Brain On Food, says there are good brain-boosting foods that people are not eating enough of that can improve their health. These foods include:
Spices do more than just wake up the flavor in food. Spices have antioxidants that help fight off harmful free radicals and prevent oxidative stress, which can damage tissues. Dr. Naidoo says that one of her favorite spices is turmeric, which is known to reduce anxiety. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties and has been linked to treating anxiety and depression.
2. Fermented Foods
Plain yogurt with active cultures, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha are fermented foods that can enhance healthy gut function, and decrease anxiety. Fermented foods contain a number of nutrients and probiotics that help to keep the body working well.
3. Dark Chocolate
There’s no such thing as dark chocolate being a guilty pleasure since the sweet treat is not only delicious but also nutritious. Dark chocolate has plenty of antioxidants and iron. A 1-ounce (28.35 gram) serving of dark chocolate has 3.4 mg of iron, an essential nutrient for the body, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central.
A 2019 cross-sectional survey of 13,626 U.S. adults found that people who reported eating any dark chocolate in two 24-hour periods had 70 percent lower odds of reporting clinically relevant depressive symptoms than those who reported not eating chocolate at all. This alone is a good reason to enjoy dark chocolate.
Avocados are rich in magnesium, which is important for proper brain function and is effective in reducing depression. Studies have found a link between major depression and magnesium deficiency.
Dr. Naidoo says she loves to blend avocados, chickpeas, and olive oil into a tasty spread on a low-glycemic index toast like a pumpernickel, or as a dip for fresh-cut vegetables.
Nuts have healthy fats, oils, essential vitamins, and minerals that support a healthy brain. Dr. Naidoo recommends eating no more than 1/4 cup of nuts a day as a snack or an ingredient in a salad or vegetable side dish. Nuts can also be made into a homemade granola or trail mix that has much less sugar and salt than those bought at the store.
6. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens contain a variety of nutrients, such as vitamin E, carotenoids, and flavonoids, which protect against dementia and cognitive decline. The vegetables are also an excellent source of folate, a natural form of vitamin B9 that is important in red blood cell formation. Naidoo says her favorite leafy greens include arugula, dandelion greens, spinach, Swiss chard, and watercress.
Additional Foods That Can Help The Brain
Besides leafy greens and dark chocolate, Dr. Naidoo suggests eating a lot of berries, which are packed with antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals—nutrients that help retain memory.
Eating the following colorful berries have a number of benefits. For example, Dr. Naidoo says:
- • Strawberries are rich in flavonoids and may help slow down
• Blueberries contain different types of flavonoids linked with preventing oxidative stress, which is a disturbance in the balance between the production of free radicals and antioxidant defenses.
• Blackberries are great sources of antioxidants, which help brain cell health.
Another food that boosts the brain is turmeric, a bright yellow or orange spice, which is of the ginger family. Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which can take the credit for turmeric’s brain-boosting benefits.
“Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory substance,” says Dr. Naidoo. Studies have found that curcumin can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and lower cognitive decline with age.
Foods to Avoid
Just as there are foods that boost brain health and focus, there are also foods that can weaken memory and focus. Dr. Naidoo has placed the following on her “What Not To Eat” list:
1. Excess Sugar
A high-sugar diet can lead to an excess amount of sugar in the brain. Studies have found that too much sucrose, lactose, sugar-sweetened beverages, sugar-sweetened cakes, and soda were significantly associated with memory impairment and may damage the hippocampus, the region of the brain that controls learning and memory.
2. Fried Foods
French fries, fried chicken, and fried fish may be tasty but they are the worst foods for the brain. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science found that people who ate a lot of fried, processed foods scored lower on tests that measure their thinking skills. Another study published in the journal, Lipids in Health and Disease, in 2016 found that people who consumed more fried foods were more likely to develop depression in their lifetime.
3. Foods High in Carbohydrates
Bread, pasta, and other foods made with refined flour may not be sweet but the body processes these foods much in the same way as sugar. Foods high in carbohydrates can increase the risk of excess weight, cardiovascular disease, and depression. But not all carbs are bad. Dr. Naidoo recommends eating “better-quality” carbohydrates, such as whole grains, high-fiber foods, and foods ranked low on the glycemic index.
Alcohol has many negative short- and long-term effects on the body as well as the mind. Research shows that excessive alcohol consumption can damage the brain and may lead to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
Nitrates are natural chemicals that add color to deli slices and are used to cure meats such as bacon, hot dogs, salami, and beef jerky. One study found that certain nitrate meat products and potentially the amounts and types of bacteria in the gut may contribute to mania, including bipolar disorder.
Dr. Naidoo recommends eating nitrate meats that contain buckwheat flour as a filler. Buckwheat flour, she says, has important antioxidants that can counter some of the negative health effects of these meats.