Recent health trends have put a lot of emphasis on consuming healthy diets that are great for our body and overall wellness, but what's good for the body may not always be good for the brain, according to a neuroscientist, nutritionist and author.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi is associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College New York Presbyterian Hospital. Her book, “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power,” discusses how one’s diet can significantly affect brain functionality.
Mosconi wrote that the brain is a “picky eater,” meaning it has very specific nutrition needs that are connected to but often not the same as the rest of the body.
“If you eat right for your brain, you’re also eating right for your body, but not necessarily the other way around,” Mosconi said. “The brain is a very special, very peculiar organ, and it’s actually the most protected organ in the entire body.”
According to Mosconi, the brain is surrounded by the blood brain barrier, which shields the brain from the outside. “Gates” in this barrier can open to allow the brain to absorb certain nutrients. There are only gates for the nutrients the brain needs, which she said can be a helpful indicator of what to consume for optimal brain health.
Because there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the link between fat and the brain, Mosconi said it is important to distinguish between which types of fat are better than others and which should be avoided altogether.
From childhood until a person’s 20s, their brain can accept some saturated fats, but those are in small amounts, and after the brain finishes maturing, it will no longer accept any saturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats with Omega 3 and DHA are the only kind that the brain needs and can accept, Mosconi said. She especially recommended multiple kinds of nuts and seeds for non-animal sources and fish like salmon, trout and other fatty fish for animal sources of these fats.
Mosconi said dark, leafy greens are also important for the brain and the rest of the body because they are very rich in vitamins and minerals. Berries are the best fruit for the brain because they are rich in antioxidants, which can help counteract or slow the aging process in the brain. It is also crucial to stay hydrated, since the brain is about 80 percent water and is therefore supersensitive to dehydration.
Though these foods are all helpful, Mosconi said what is just as important to remember is what not to consume.
“My number-one brain tip is not really what to eat, but rather, what we should not be eating, and that’s, really, processed food,” Mosconi said. “Processed food is a terrible combination of artificial chemicals, unhealthy fats, refined sugar, preservatives, gum, all sorts of additives and coloring that are really harmful to your brain and body.”
Because of this, Mosconi said to drop processed food entirely (anything with an expiration date at least a year off).
Mosconi studied patients over 70 years old who followed this plan, along with regular exercise, and found that many saw an average of 150 percent improvement in brain focus and attention over the course of two years. In addition, these practices can help counteract the effects of dementia.
“The benefits are, in some people, immediate,” Mosconi said. “So many of our patients report improved mental quality, better focus [and] better attention in a matter of months.”
Based on the results, Mosconi said anyone can benefit from paying attention to brain health. It is not easy, but the work is well worth it, she said.
“There’s evidence that it really, really works, but it takes discipline,” Mosconi said. “You have to want to make those changes in a way that is consistent and doable, and it’s really important to do that because the benefits are for life.”