Brain power: Eat to improve your memory

Nov 30, 2012 at 6:18 p.m. ET

Over time, certain foods and beverages can interfere with memory function. Conversely, removing these foods from the diet, and consuming different foods and nutrients in different proportions, can have the opposite effect and actually improve memory function and help ward off Alzheimer’s disease.

Woman eating fruit salad

Recently, a number of impressive clinical studies have revealed groundbreaking new evidence that specific nutritional interventions — what you eat and what kinds of supplements you take can significantly improve memory function in patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD) and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Other studies show that the right diet can delay the onset of AD in memory-compromised patients.

If nutritional interventions can prevent and treat Alzheimer's disease, imagine what they can do for your brain. You don't have to have Alzheimer's to benefit from the new findings. Everyone needs a healthy brain, and all of us lose memory function as we age. Eating brain-healthy foods will help you now and in the future. Here are 11 recommendations, based on the new research.


Proportion your fat-carb-protein intake

These three categories of food are known as macronutrients, and your brain needs them in the right proportion to function optimally. Each day, aim to get 25 percent of your total calories from fat (eliminate all trans fats and limit saturated fats to 7 percent or less); 30 to 45 percent from complex carbs such as fruits, vegetables, and whole foods that are low on the glycemic index; and 25 to 35 percent from high-quality lean protein.


Eliminate high-glycemic carbs

These include sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, processed cereals and grains, anything baked, ice cream and sorbet, crackers, salty snacks such as chips and pretzels, and anything made with white flour. If these are "comfort foods" for you, find or make healthy alternatives, such as homemade frozen pops made with nonfat yogurt and frozen berries, or baked kale chips.


Eat like a Greek

Studies show that the Mediterranean-style diet is the most brain-healthy diet on the plant. It includes fruits and vegetables, lean protein (fish, chicken and turkey); low-fat yogurt and cheeses; and grains, nuts and seeds. Stay away from red meat and processed foods.


Know good fat from bad

Foods that are high in good fats are also good for your brain. These include olive oil, avocados, certain nuts, natural peanut butter, certain seeds and certain fish. Foods that are high in "bad" (saturated) fat are also bad for your brain, and include most fast foods, anything hydrogenated, dried coconut, butter, animal fats, milk chocolate and white chocolate, and cheese.


Get a lot more omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) are essential for memory function and brain health. Most of us don't get enough from dietary sources (such as fish), so consider high-quality, pure fish oil supplements that contain a minimum of 250 mg of DHA in each capsule and aim for 1,000 to 1,500 mg of DHA daily if approved by your physician.


Boost your antioxidants

Optimal mental function relies on lots of antioxidant-rich foods. Here are some of the best: berries, kale, 100 percent pure unsweetened cocoa powder, mushrooms, onions, beans, seeds, sardines, herring, trout and Alaskan wild salmon.


Get your brain vitamins

Take adequate amounts of folic acid, B6, B12, and vitamin D in particular. If you're not eating vitamin-rich foods on a regular basis, it's good to supplement as needed in pill or liquid form.


Eat whole, not processed, foods

What's a whole food? In general, whole foods have only one ingredient—for example, strawberries or broccoli or barley. If you must have a convenience (manufactured) food on occasion, find packaged, canned or frozen items with the fewest ingredients and with ingredients that you readily recognize and understand.


Take the fat out of your dairy

If you prepare foods using full-fat milk, cheese or yogurt, use nonfat versions instead. If you drink whole milk or half-and-half in your coffee, try mixing it with skim milk and increasing the proportion of non-fat to high-fat every day. Pretty soon you'll be used to the lower-fat version and have no urge to go back.


Enjoy brain-healthy coffee

Here's some good news for coffee lovers. One to three cups of coffee early in the day may be beneficial over time for your brain. Studies in Europe done over several years demonstrated that men who drank coffee regularly for many years showed less of a decline on memory tests than those who did not drink coffee.


Fast 12 hours at night

If you routinely wake up at 6 a.m., try to eat your last meal at 6 p.m. the night before. There is scientific evidence that substances called ketone bodies, which are produced when there are no carbohydrates to burn for fuel, may have a protective effect on brain cells.

More tips to boost brain power

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Foods that help women stay focused
Brain games are a great defense against Alzheimer's