Two words that Michele Norkus, Registered Dietitian and Bethesda Clinical Nutrition Manager, shares when asked about her approach to a healthy diet are “balance” and “natural.”

“There isn’t just one food that protects brain health,” Michele says. “If you think you are just going to eat a handful of walnuts and a salad each day and that will take care of your mind and body, it won’t work. You need variety—a balance of good foods that work for you.”

According to Michele, the best sources for vitamins and nutrients are found in whole foods, especially plant-based foods. “These are proven to be the effective way to get what you need as opposed to a tablet or capsule that claims to make you feel and think better,” she says.

Her definition of “natural” means foods that have undergone little or no processing. “We’ve taken things like whole-grain bread and refined the protein and fiber out of them until they are almost a non-food,” she says.

The Good Foods

She lists green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, collards and broccoli. Each contains Vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta-carotene, which has been linked to brain health.

Her list of good foods also includes omega-3 sources like cold-water fish, (cod, mackerel, halibut, salmon, tuna, and herring). Other sources of omerga-3 include walnuts, chia and hemp seeds, and flaxseeds. (She notes that people should consume ground flaxseed because the whole seed in the shell is indigestible and will simply pass through the body.)

The consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids should be more balanced than most people eat, she says. Omega-6 competes with omega-3 in the body, and omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral. Oils containing large amounts of omega-6 oil include:

  • Safflower
  • Sunflower
  • Corn
  • Cottonseed
  • Sesame
  • Peanut
  • Soybean
  • Canola
  • Walnut

“Our omega-6 consumption is off the chart,” Michele says. “One major source in the western diet is fried foods.”

Fruits and berries also make her list. A study by Harvard researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and published in a journal of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society states that “a high intake of flavonoid-rich berries, such as strawberries and blueberries, can, over time, delay memory decline in older women by two and half years.”

Start Now

It’s an old maxim, but we are what we eat. Specifically, we are what we eat relatively early in our lives. Good dietary habits started early can assist the body and mind to produce more energy, reduce chances for injury, speed recovery, aid in improved focus and mental organization, and develop a more effective-decision making capability. “It is about preventative measures,” Michele says. “And the time to begin is before physical and cognitive challenges appear.”

Resources

The Mayo Clinic provides information on what it describes as “good evidence that what you eat can make a difference in your risk of cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.”

To learn more about how your daily nutrition can support a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle, check out the Health & Wellness section on our blog.