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How to Grocery Shop for Better Brain Health

3 tips for your next trip down the grocery aisles.

Key points

  • Grocery shopping is an incredibly important activity for brain health. Doing it right 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.
  • Reading food and beverage labels allows you to avoid hidden sugar that may damage brain health.

Grocery shopping may be surprisingly important 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.

Los Muertos Crew/Pexels
Source: Los Muertos Crew/Pexels

Unfortunately, most of the products for sale in grocery stores are doing the health of our brains 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 three of the most important considerations:

1. Prioritize key, brain-boosting nutrients

Evidence suggests 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 quantities. 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: These plant nutrients are linked to immune health, metabolic wellness, and brain outcomes. They 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: These are key to brain structure and function. They’re found in chia seeds and nuts, but the most important of them tend to be in seafood. Try some wild salmon, anchovies, mackerel, or herring.
  • Zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins: These key vitamins and minerals are linked to brain wellness. Consider adding some seeds (pumpkin seeds are great) and nuts, like walnuts or almonds, to your cart to get a solid dose of these micronutrients. If you're looking to splurge, shellfish are also a great source.

2. Swap out 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 quickly convert into sugar upon 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.

3. Don’t be distracted or bamboozled: Read the food labels

Food and beverage manufacturers know a bit about human psychology. 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 products relates to added sugars. Shocking research shows that around 70 percent 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 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 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 an item. 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, prioritizing single-ingredient foods (like fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats) that don’t require ingredient lists is a great move for brain wellness.

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