Health and Wellness

Harvard-trained brain expert: 4 key foods I try to eat every day to stay sharp and fight Alzheimer's

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The foods we eat have a profound impact on brain health, including our risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

As a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, I often recommend the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, which was designed to lower the risk of cognitive decline as we age. 

Common MIND foods are berries, leafy greens, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish and poultry. But you don't have to go by this diet perfectly. A study showed that people who only moderately followed it reduced their risk of Alzheimer's by 37%.

Here's what I try to eat every day to boost my brain health:

1. Lean proteins

Eating foods high in saturated fats can contribute to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and heart disease — all of which are modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer's.

Studies have also found that people who regularly eat red meat show more cognitive decline.

I've swapped red meat out out for a variety of lean proteins that I eat every day, particularly salmon, tuna, eggs and tofu. These are all great sources of vitamin B and vitamin D — key nutrients for fighting dementia.

2. Whole grains 

Instead of processed white bread and rice, I regularly eat whole grain bread, brown rice and quinoa, which are good sources of vitamin B. 

A recent study found that people who ate two servings of whole grains a day had a 40% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's.

3. Leafy greens 

I'm a big fan of green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, which are high in brain-boosting nutrients like lutein, beta-carotene and folate. I eat salads almost every day, and one of my favorite recipes includes greens, roasted tomatoes, avocado, black olives and pistachios. 

Another one of my go-to salads is greens with pomegranate seeds, tofu sautéed in olive oil, apples, cranberries and walnuts. I make a simple dressing of olive oil, salt and lemon, sometimes adding Dijon mustard and honey or vinegar. 

4. Nuts and seeds

Nuts, seeds and plant oils like flaxseed oil are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which help keep your brain cells healthy and lower inflammation. 

It's also important to get enough omega-3 fatty acids because our bodies don't produce them on their own.

Smoothies are a delicious way to incorporate more nuts and seeds into your diet. I like to blend a teaspoon of chia seeds, a teaspoon of flaxseeds, a tablespoon of peanut butter (just peanuts, no added sugars or oils), a handful of spinach or kale, one banana, a wedge of lemon, and oat milk. 

How to make the MIND diet work for you

There are so many diets out there that seem to contradict each other. A lot of them focus on restriction and deprivation, which is often unsustainable. So I'd like you to think of MIND as a menu, not a diet.

It's an approach to eating in which we get to choose from a variety of delicious foods that are optimal for brain health and protect against cognitive decline — and deemphasize the foods that don't. 

This shouldn't feel like a 30-day regimen that you'll toss out on day 31. Ideally, it can become a consistent pattern and a way of life.

Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist and author of "Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting." She graduated from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University. She travels worldwide speaking about brain health, memory and neurological diseases.

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Harvard nutritionist: This is the No. 1 vitamin to keep your brain sharp
Harvard nutritionist says this is the number one vitamin to keep brain sharp