And a better way to think about brain food!
By Austin Perlmutter, MD
Brain health issues are a very important and widespread issue, but many brain "solutions" involving nutrition are sensationalized and factually inaccurate
Superfoods and certain supplements may have brain benefits, but don't fix an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle
Dietary "detoxes" are mostly overhyped and unscientific plays for our attention
Eating a diet rich in a diversity of unprocessed foods should be a top nutritional priority for brain health for most people
With everyone selling the quick-fix, it's only natural that we see thousands of pitches for fast ways to fix our brains. Many of these specifically relate to the healing powers of food and supplements to combat mental and cognitive health issues. While there's certainly real science behind these claims (see my blog for tons of references), there are a number of misleading claims seeking to capitalize on our well-founded desires to protect our brain health. Here are 3 to be aware of (and share with your friends and family!)
1. Eating an occasional superfood will fix your brain Whether it’s goji berries, chia seeds or ceremonial-grade matcha, superfoods have made a name for themselves as ingredients and standalone products promising to deliver incredible health benefits. These products generally focus on their antioxidants, vitamins or other nutrients as a way to get us interested. It's true that many of these foods are uniquely rich in molecules linked to better wellness. Sometimes they do represent a good way to ensure we’re consuming adequate levels of nutrients linked to brain wellness like omega-3 fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Yet all too often, we buy into the myth that an occasional superfood will offset an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle. This is why focusing on a holistic picture of sustainable health practices is a far more reliable plan for long-term brain health. If that includes some delicious and nutritious superfoods, great!
2. A quick dietary “detox” is the way to clearer thinking The idea of a rapid, food-based “detox” is more or less a staple of modern wellness culture. When applied to diet, these highly variable plans promise to quickly “flush out the toxins” using juices, apple cider vinegar, a boatload of kidney and liver-supporting supplements or other means. Generally, the level of evidence supporting most dietary “detoxes” is low, and much of the benefit people might experience may be due to pausing the consumption of alcohol and unhealthy foods, rather than the actual detox foods/beverages/supplements themselves. If you’re looking for a better “detox” for long-term brain health, consider committing to a plan that specifically reduces consumption of ultraprocessed foods, excess alcohol and added sugar.
3. Supplements are a standalone solution to better brain health Our culture is obsessed with quick fixes. Whether it’s a get-rich quick cryptocurrency, a “drop 15 pounds in 2 weeks” diet or a brain-boosting supplement that will rapidly improve memory and cognition, we’re all too often falling victim to ploys for our money and our time. As it relates to the claim that any supplement (or pharmaceutical drug for that matter) can reliably and safely improve brain function in the average person, there’s unfortunately not much good data to work with. Yes, there is some signal for certain populations receiving brain benefits from supplements (for example B12 supplements in those with deficiency, omega-3 supplements for the elderly and those not getting sufficient levels in diet). But by and large, there is far more reliable data that core lifestyle factors like sleep, a whole-foods diet and regular exercise matter far more than supplementation for preventive brain health.
What's a better plan?
Despite the myths, it’s important to recognize that there are benefits to choosing certain foods over others and prioritizing certain nutrients. While superfoods and supplements may be a good way for some people to augment their brain-healthy plan, the best bet overall for most people to target better brain health through diet appears to be consuming less ultraprocessed foods and more nutrient-rich whole foods. To this end, the Mediterranean and MIND diets are research-backed options, each emphasizing minimally processed foods, including fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, fish, some poultry and low in added sugar.