Australia’s leading and most trusted women’s health organisation, Jean Hailes, explores what you can eat and what you should avoid eating, to improve your memory and your mind.
When it comes to eating to improve your memory, it’s all in the mind – that is, a diet called the MIND diet.
The MIND diet is a way of eating that highlights and emphasises foods and nutrients that are strongly linked with protecting the brain, as backed by science.
The MIND diet is based on two other diets: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Like its predecessors, the MIND diet’s main focus is vegetables and fruit, yet it has a point of difference – the MIND diet singles out specific brain-healthy foods and nutrients. When part of a whole way of eating, the MIND diet can help slow down cognitive decline with age.
Jean Hailes’s naturopath Sandra Villella says that studies on this eating pattern are promising. “One research study on 80–90 year olds found that after almost five years, those who closely followed the MIND diet had brains that were 7.5 years younger than those who didn’t eat according to its principles,” Sandra says.
So here they are: the top food groups, as backed by research, to keep your mind young and your memory in check.
Getting your green on
There’s no denying it, green leafy vegetables are a star player in the world of health food – and that’s because they pack a punch. Filled with brain-loving nutrients, such as folate and flavonoids, research has shown that eating your greens can boost brain health and help to prevent dementia and cognitive decline. Think spinach, rocket, kale, Swiss chard and broccoli.
Reverse brain-age with blueberries
When it comes to nourishing your memory and mind, berries – especially blueberries – tick all the boxes. Growing evidence suggests they can prevent, or even reverse, the effects of ageing on the brain. Berries are low in sugar, high in antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory.
Fresh or frozen, Sandra recommends adding blueberries to your breakfast every morning. “If you can’t afford blueberries every day, go for plums, prunes, blackcurrants and black grapes – these deeper-coloured fruits are a fantastic source of antioxidants,” she says.
Eat a rainbow of foods
The gold at the end of rainbow
Another class of nutrients to focus on is carotenoids. Carotenoids are naturally-occurring colour pigments present in many fruits and vegetables, and research suggests that they do wonders for brain health. A 13-year study on men and women aged 45–60 years found that those who ate a carotenoid-rich diet performed better in language, memory and mental processing tasks at the end of the study than those who lacked these nutrients.
“To get more carotenoids in your diet, eat a wide variety of fruit and veggies in every colour of the rainbow,” suggests Sandra. “Include reds, oranges, yellows, darker greens and purples. The richest sources of carotenoids are tomato, carrot, sweet potato, pumpkin and spinach.”
Favoured fish fats
Your brain is 60 per cent fat so it’s no surprise that the fats you eat affect your brain health and its ability to perform at its best. Research has found that not getting enough healthy omega-3 fats in your diet is linked with impaired memory and altered brain processes. Studies have also found just one fish meal a week is enough to lower your risk of dementia and if you bump it up to the recommended two or three times weekly, the better protected you (and your brain) will likely be.
The best fish and seafood for the brain are the ones with the highest amounts of these omega-3 fats: sardines, mackerel, herring, salmon, trout, tuna and calamari.
Don’t forget vitamin E foods
Nuts and seeds
Vitamin E is a bit of a forgotten vitamin. However, it’s an important nutrient for preserving memory and research has found it protects brain cells from damage. What’s more, some (but not all) studies have found that it can slow cognitive decline and improve brain health in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
To get more vitamin E foods in your diet, include wholegrains, sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts and olive oil.
Balance for brain health
Just as there are nutrients that nourish the brain, there are foods that can have the opposite effect when eaten too often.
Animal studies have found that a diet high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates can disrupt brain function. Another study on older people with significant memory loss found that a diet high in processed foods (such as biscuits, snack foods, sweets, fried foods and processed meats) was associated with mental impairment.
As with most things in life, it’s all about balance as Sandra explains.
“It’s fine to have these foods as a special treat every now and then, but any more than that and you’ll be missing out on all the goodness and benefits that real food, good food, can provide,” she says.