Top 10 Brain-Healthy Swaps in the Kitchen
The brain is a powerful organ that we rely on for everything we do, so it’s important to do what we can to help keep our brains sharp. Nutrition is an easy and effective way to support brain health. Evidence has shown that the foods we eat have profound effects on brain health, from decreasing inflammation in the brain to reducing one’s risk of developing devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia. What’s the best way to start eating for brain health? The first step is to surround yourself with the foods that are known to be neuroprotective and swapping out the ingredients that are known to be detrimental.
Making big changes to your diet can feel challenging and often unsustainable, but small, incremental changes are a great place to start. For example, replacing a few items in your kitchen with more brain-healthy options is a nice first step.
Here are our top 10 brain-healthy swaps to make in the kitchen:
- Ditch the chips and go for nuts. Chips are high in sodium which can have consequences for cardiovascular health, which is also connected to brain health. Nuts, on the other hand, are a great source of protein and fiber, and provide healthy fats, vitamin E, and magnesium. These support the brain by providing energy, antioxidants, and help to fight inflammation. Next time you’re looking for a satiating afternoon snack, reach for a handful of our favorite brain-supporting nuts including walnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans, and hazelnuts.
- Choose olive oil or avocado oil over canola, vegetable, and seed oils. Most oils are high in harmful saturated and trans fats, but olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, contains omega-3s, polyphenols, vitamin E, and vitamin K. These nutrients contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to help protect the brain from damage. You can use olive oil for low to medium heat cooking, but go with avocado oil when cooking at a high heat. Olive oil can even be used for baking, like in these delicious pumpkin blueberry muffins by Annie Fenn, M.D.
- Seltzer water, not soda. Just one can of soda contains 39 grams of sugar, which is more than the recommended intake of sugar for an entire day! Too much sugar in the diet can lead to high glucose in the brain which can impact cognition. High glucose can also lead to type 2 diabetes, which is a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease. Seltzer water provides the same refreshing fizz with a natural flavoring and no sugar.
- Use frozen berries instead of fresh when out of season. Berries are packed with nutrients including anthocyanins, vitamin C, and fiber. They provide potent antioxidants to protect the brain from harmful toxins. It’s great to eat berries daily, but in the winter, it can be hard to find fresh berries. Frozen berries are an easy and less expensive alternative. And the best part is that frozen berries are often-times richer in nutrients than fresh berries! They are perfect to throw in your morning smoothie or bowl of oatmeal, or use in a low-sugar berry crisp.
- Swap mayo with mustard, hummus, pesto or avocado. Mayo is high in unhealthy fats and doesn’t provide many nutritional benefits. Other options allow you to use your condiment as a source of brain-healthy nutrients. Mustard provides protein, fiber, vitamin C, and several B vitamins. Hummus is rich in fiber, protein, magnesium, and folate. Pesto contains healthy fats, polyphenols, and protein. Lastly, avocados are packed with healthy fats, magnesium, folate, potassium, vitamin E and vitamin C. All of these options offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidative benefits for brain health, and can be spread on sandwiches or used as dips for vegetables or whole grain crackers.
- Mocktails over cocktails. While moderate red wine consumption may have some anti-inflammatory benefits, too much alcohol is associated with a wide range of health issues including heart disease, liver disease, stroke, digestive problems, and high blood pressure. You can still enjoy a delicious drink without the alcohol by trying some mocktail recipes. Try this healthy mojito mocktail, or this sugar-free grapefruit ginger mocktail.
- Look for sugar free and oil free nut butters. With any nut butter, the fewer ingredients the better. Use nut butters with no added sugars or inflammatory oils for the best brain benefits. Almond butter is a great alternative as it provides healthy fats, protein, magnesium, and vitamin E. Try almond butter with your favorite fruit as a snack, mix into a smoothie, use to make a sauce, or enjoy on a piece of multigrain toast.
- Swap out pasta for spiralized zucchini or other veggies. Not al carbs are created equal! Pasta is high in simple carbohydrates, while vegetables like zucchini, squash, sweet potatoes, or carrots, are all packed with complex carbs and nutrients, and they can be turned into noodles. Simple carbs have been processed so much that they no longer contain the vital fiber and nutrients that complex carbs provide. All vegetables offer polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals that help support brain health by fighting oxidative stress and inflammation. You can turn any vegetable into noodles with an affordable and easy to use spiralizer. The best part is you won’t even taste the difference when mixed into your favorite sauce!
- Replace high sugar yogurt with plain Greek yogurt. Yogurt is one of biggest culprits when it comes to hidden added sugars. A single serving of Yoplait strawberry yogurt has 19 grams of sugar! But plain Greek yogurt doesn’t have any added sugar, and you can add a drizzle of honey or maple syrup to sweeten it if needed. Prefer fruit flavored yogurt? Mix fresh or frozen fruit into your yogurt to get the same sweet flavor without the added sugar. Greek yogurt is a great source of protein, calcium, B vitamins, and probiotics.
- Use fresh herbs instead of too much salt. Fresh herbs provide a much more potent flavor than dried herbs, and they have health benefits. Parsley, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, and basil are all herbs that are easy to find in their fresh form. Adding these as seasoning to a dish gives it more flavor without having to add a lot of salt which supplies too much sodium. Fresh herbs also have vitamin A, C, and K, and polyphenols. Learn more about cooking with fresh herbs here!
It can be overwhelming to make dietary changes, but these are minor adjustments that you can make over time to start eating a more brain-healthy diet. Start out with just one brain-healthy kitchen swap each week and slowly build up. You will start noticing the health benefits very soon, and you’ll be nourishing your long-term brain health at the same time!
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As you make progress with diet, RELEVATE can help fill in the gaps where your diet falls short. RELEVATE is designed upon the framework of the Medi and MIND diets, and includes 17 nutrients for long-term brain health. Learn more about RELEVATE here.