Easy strategies to help build a healthier brain!
By Austin Perlmutter, MD
Grocery shopping is incredibly important for brain health. Having a plan is key!
Certain foods and nutrients may have an outsized benefit for our brains
Avoiding processed foods and prioritizing whole foods is an excellent strategy for brain health
Read food and beverage labels to avoid hidden sugar that may damage brain health
Grocery shopping is simply critical when it comes to brain health. Why is that? The food we buy in the grocery store becomes the physical building blocks of our brains. It turns into neurotransmitters that influence mood and thoughts. It affects our gut-brain connection, inflammation and so many more pathways that relate directly to our brain health.
Unfortunately, most of the products for sale in grocery stores are doing our brain health no favors, and may in fact contribute to a higher risk for brain diseases like depression and Alzheimer’s. That’s why anyone who wants to protect and improve brain health needs to have a plan for grocery shopping. Here are 3 of the most important considerations:
1. Don't be distracted or bamboozled! Read the labels!
Food and beverage manufacturers know how our brains work. They use this knowledge to fine-tune marketing and branding messages that distract us from the junk they peddle and get us to buy based on impulse or emotional connections (this is especially the case for products targeting children).
Another way that these companies use brain science to get us to buy their junk relates to added sugars. Shocking research shows that around 70% of foods and beverages in grocery stores have added sugar—an ingredient that has been linked to all manner of negative health outcomes and may directly compromise our brain health. Why is it there? To sell product! Our brains love sugar, and we tend to get hooked on/keep purchasing products that give us a decent jolt of the sweet stuff, despite the long-term consequences.
If grocery store drinks and foods are so well designed to distract us and hook us on the brain-damaging junk, how do we fight back? The best solution is to read the fine print. Nutrition facts are mandated on processed foods and beverages, and will clearly state whether there is added sugar in a food. If there is, that’s a great reason to put it back on the shelf. Ingredient lists can be tougher, but if you see cane syrup, rice syrup, corn syrup, fructose, agave or any type of sugar, consider giving it a pass. More generally speaking, prioritizing single ingredient foods (like fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and such) that don’t require ingredient lists is a great move for brain wellness.
2. Prioritize these foods rich in key brain-boosting nutrients
Beyond general dietary advice, there’s some evidence that suggests that certain foods and nutrients may have outsized value for our brain health (these are sometimes called “superfoods”). When it comes to the brain, some of the best research is around a few key nutrients and the foods that contain them in high amounts. These include phytonutrients (plant nutrients like antioxidants), gut-friendly fiber, omega-3 fats and key vitamins and minerals. Here's your treasure map for picking out some superstar foods packed with these nutrients.
Phytonutrients: Plant nutrients linked to immune health, metabolic wellness and brain outcomes. These are widely distributed in fruits and vegetables, teas, coffee, spices and herbs. Look for colorful fruits and vegetables (blueberries are a great choice), try some new herbs and spices, and look for coffee and tea without the added sugar.
Gut-friendly fiber: with the gut-brain connection now taking center stage in brain health conversations, consider supporting your gut with unique fiber sources like jicama, dandelion greens, onions, sunchokes, leeks and garlic
Omega-3 fats are key to brain structure and function. They’re found in chia seeds and nuts, but the most important of these tend to be in seafood. Try some wild salmon, anchovies, mackerel or herring.
Key vitamins and minerals like zinc, magnesium and B vitamins are linked to brain wellness. Consider seeds (pumpkin seeds are great!) and nuts like walnuts or almonds to get a solid dose of these micronutrients. Looking to splurge? Oysters and other shellfish are exceptionally rich in these micronutrients.
3. Swap the processed foods for whole food alternatives
The top source of calories consumed by Americans is grains. The most commonly consumed grains are wheat, corn and rice, often in heavily processed forms that remove key nutrients and readily convert into sugar on digestion. Add in the refined sugar that’s mixed into most grocery items, and it’s easy to see that by weight, most of the products filling the aisles of the store are packed with processed ingredients that are linked to inflammation and worse metabolic health—two key factors that may damage brain health.
The alternative to these heavily modified products is what you’d expect: choose whole foods that have been minimally processed. This includes the entire gamut of fruits and vegetables, poultry, fish, meat, nuts, seeds and spices, but with a few caveats.
First, it’s likely the case that when it comes to brain health, just about any real fruit or vegetable will be a better choice than a “fruit snack” or flavored chips with a hint of actual potato. With this said, there is considerable variability in the quality of whole foods. Ideally, choose organic products, and if you’re eating animal products, try to opt for wild fish, pastured chicken and grass-fed beef.
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A version of this article I wrote was also published on Psychologytoday.com