How to eat for a healthy brain

Food has a direct influence on mood, as anyone who occasionally experiences a mild state of aggression due to hunger knows. But food also has longer-term effects on brain health. 

How to eat for a healthy brain
Brain healthy food

In her new book, The Healthy Brain, Aileen Burford-Mason, former assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, discusses how diet affects sleep, productivity, and mood, and can besides preventing Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Here are five lessons from his insightful guide to nourishing the brain.

More than five servings of fruits and vegetables per day

The idea that adults need five servings of fruits and vegetables a day is a myth - that number is enough for children four to eight years old. Instead, they need 10 servings (a fruit the size of a baseball, half a cup of chopped veggies, or a cup of leafy greens). A study conducted in the UK over a period of 12 years found that vegetables offer up to four times the protection of fruits against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and brain and degenerative diseases. It's not that complicated, writes Aileen Burford-Mason. Any daily intake beyond five servings per day increases the health benefits.

Magnesium is an ally

Many people eat too little magnesium, which is essential for stress management. The deficiency of this mineral has been observed to increase anxiety levels. Nationally, at least 40% of young adults and almost 70% of the elderly have insufficient magnesium intake. It also works with calcium to ensure the proper functioning of the muscles. 

Too low magnesium levels cause our muscles to contract and feel tense. With the right rate, we feel relaxed. If a bath with Epsom salt is good for you, it is because Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate. Under stress, the body tenses up because the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol deplete our magnesium stores. The brain sends a signal to the body to stay on alert, which triggers the famous fight-or-flight response. Some of the best dietary sources of magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, salmon, and whole grains, for example, cereals with bran.

The brain needs fat

The brain is mostly made up of fat - about 60% and a particular type. Its cells need omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which help prevent several chronic diseases associated with aging, such as heart disease and dementia. 

These fatty acids are said to be essential, which means that the body cannot produce them on its own and therefore must come from food. You should aim for about the same amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Foods rich in omega-3s include eggs, soybeans, tofu, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and oily fish, such as salmon, trout, and mackerel. On the omega-6 side, nuts, seeds, soybeans, corn, sunflower oil, meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are among the foods that are well endowed with them.

Coffee in moderation

Caffeine is a brain stimulant that increases attention and improves psychomotor skills, such as those required to drive a vehicle or play a musical instrument. But breakfast shouldn't be overlooked, as coffee alone will only provide a certain amount of energy. Aileen Burford-Mason compares the action of coffee to that of pushing a car that has run out of gas: Caffeine can kick-start the brain and occasionally help it move forward a little, but after a while, we can no longer function without fuel, or without food.

The ideal diet for the brain is easy to remember!

Just remember 15 main foods, of which 10 should be preferred and 5 should be avoided. The MIND diet (from the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) combines elements of the DASH diet (from the English Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, a nutritional approach to reduce hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet, to create an easy to follow food framework. In a 2015 study of more than 900 seniors, researchers found that those who followed the MIND diet had a less cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease. Aileen Burford-Mason considers the MIND diet the best for promoting brain health.


  1. Leafy vegetables: one salad a day
  2. Other vegetables: one serving per day
  3. Nuts: one serving per day
  4. Berries: at least two servings per week, preferably blueberries and strawberries
  5. Legumes: three or four servings per week
  6. Whole grains: three servings per day
  7. Fish: one serving or more per week
  8. Poultry: at least two servings per week
  9. Olive oil: should be the main oil used
  10. Wine: one glass per day


  1. Red meats: eat as little as possible
  2. Butter: no more than a tablespoon per day
  3. Cheese: no more than one serving per week
  4. Pastries and sweets: avoid
  5. Deep frying and fast food: no more than one serving per week

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