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3 Crucial Food Swaps That Can Boost Brain Health

Nuts and sparkling water in, meat and energy drinks out.

Key points

  • Instead of processed meat, choose fish and unprocessed meat alternatives.
  • Sub out refined carbohydrate snacks for nuts, seeds, and berries.
  • Instead of soda and energy drinks, opt for sparkling water and unsweetened coffee.
Tetyana Kovyrina/Pexels
Source: Tetyana Kovyrina/Pexels

Research over the last decades has made it abundantly clear that what we eat plays a major role in our overall, and especially, brain health. For example, we know that people who follow certain dietary patterns (like the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet) may be protecting themselves against conditions like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and depression. We also know that inflammation in our brains (driven in part by unhealthy diets) may have the opposite effect.

Yet often, it’s tough to make an abrupt change from an unhealthy diet to a healthy one. With this in mind, making some simple food swaps is a great way to ease into a brain-healthy diet. Here are three easy ways to sub out dietary junk in favor of healthier alternatives for your brain.

1. Swap processed meat for fish and unprocessed alternatives.

Most of us have heard that excessive red meat consumption may be bad for our bodies. On the other side of the spectrum, the rising popularity of diets like the “carnivore” diet has others wondering if there are health benefits to eating more meat.

What does the research actually say? Though the picture is somewhat muddy, several larger studies have shown that when it comes to brain function, it’s very likely the processed meat we want to avoid. For example, an observational study of nearly 500,000 people found that processed meat consumption (think hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and many deli meats) was linked to a higher risk for dementia, while eating unprocessed beef, lamb, and pork had the opposite effect.

Want to take it one step further? Seafood, especially omega-3-rich fish, like wild salmon, may be even better for long-term brain health. In a meta-analysis of over 30,000 people published in 2022, researchers found people eating more seafood had a significantly lower risk of developing dementia.

2. Swap out the refined carb snacks for nuts and seeds.

One important signal in recent dementia research concerns the connection between metabolic health and brain health. In brain scans of people with dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, there’s evidence that the brain has trouble using glucose for fuel. This is linked to something called "insulin resistance," a condition in which our bodies (and potentially our brains) develop problems with blood sugar management.

So how does insulin resistance develop? A major contribution is thought to be the excessive consumption of foods that spike blood sugar, and processed snacks rich in refined carbohydrates (for example, crackers, chips, cookies, or pretzel sticks) may do just that. In a study from 2020, researchers found that people who ate afternoon snacks that spiked blood sugar were at a higher risk for developing dementia.

If you want to ditch the refined carbs for something better for the brain, where should you look? One great source of healthier calories and nutrients is nuts and seeds. The studied benefits of nut consumption include better blood sugar control and healthier weight. Nuts are rich in specific fats linked to better brain health. Because of this, it’s been proposed that consistent nut consumption could help offset the risk of brain diseases. Some great options include almonds, walnuts, cashews (technically a seed), and pumpkin seeds.

Berries are another great replacement for sweet and processed carbohydrates. They are rich in plant nutrients called polyphenols, which have been linked to better brain health. In addition, berries tend not to spike blood sugar as much as typical refined carbohydrate-based snacks. One amazing example is blueberries, an especially brain-healthy snack that may protect brain cells from age-related damage.

3. Swap soda and energy drinks for sparkling water and unsweetened coffee.

In general, we consume far more added sugar than any nutritional organization recommends. For example, the World Health Organization recommends we consume less than 5 percent of our calories from added sugar, yet in the U.S., that number is closer to 15 percent.

Added sugar has been linked to a wide variety of negative health outcomes, including worse brain health, but the evidence here is perhaps most notable for sugary beverages. In addition to the risk for weight gain and metabolic dysfunction, some research suggests that sugary drinks are linked to an increased risk for the development of dementia and depression.

The big reasons we enjoy soda and energy drinks are pretty straightforward: we get thirsty, they taste good, and they often provide a boost of caffeine. So instead of attempting a direct swap for basic water, some great alternatives include flavored sparkling waters (when looking for a tasty thirst-quencher) and turning to coffee or tea (both studied for potential benefits to brain function) when you’re looking for an energy pick-me-up.

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