The golden years of our lives are not called golden for nothing, and while Robert Frost warns us that “nothing gold can stay,” studies have shown that we can, in fact, take certain steps to lengthen the duration of our golden years and keep our minds sharp. In fact, genetics account for only 20-30 percent of our aging process, while lifestyle accounts for 60-70 percent, with nutrition being the most influential factor. If we make smart choices, filling our plates with smart foods, we can keep our bodies and minds resplendent throughout our golden years.
Entrees: Fish and Turkey
Fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines, are some of the most potent proteins we can consume to help support healthy brain function. Chocked full of Omega-3 fatty acids, consuming fatty fish decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. People aged 65 and older who ate fish three or more times a week had a 26 percent decline in their risk of dementia. In addition, the consumption of these fish can decrease your risk of suffering a stroke. In fact, adding these fish to your diet can also help increase your memory as you age. Because fatty fish contain the mineral selenium, consuming them may help keep your mood balanced, as well. Diets low in selenium correlate with higher instances of depression, leading researchers to surmise that maintaining a higher level of the mineral can help support mental health.
If you’re not a fan of seafood, turkey is another adequate source of selenium, proven to help boost mood. While turkey’s tryptophan content has long been infamous for causing the all-too-familiar Thanksgiving Day food coma, tryptophan is actually quite misunderstood. Instead of making you tired all on its own, it produces serotonin, an anti-depressant that helps regulate your sleep cycles. Without tryptophan, the brain cannot produce serotonin, which helps with memory, transmitting impulses between nerves, sense of well-being and mood balance.
Sides: Broccoli and Beans
Both turkey and seafood pair well with broccoli, a superfood associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s, as well as with helping to maintain “crystallized intelligence,” or the skills and knowledge you have acquired over and applied throughout the span of your life. Broccoli is also a good source of lutein, a plant pigment that embeds in cell membranes and protects your neurons. The consumption of lutein helps preserve our telomeres, essentially protective caps on both ends of our chromosomes that help safeguard the genome from degradation with age.
High in protein and low in saturated fat, beans make another smart food choice for brain health. They contain folate, iron, potassium, magnesium and choline (a B Vitamin), just to name a few nutrients. Consuming beans can increase acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that assists with maintaining involuntary bodily function. Beans can also help stabilize glucose, which your brain needs but cannot store.
Garnishes: Berries, Walnuts and Avocado
Traditionally, we think of the major food groups as including carbohydrates and starches, fruits, vegetables, proteins, dairy and sweets. The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) lists berries as their own, standalone food group, though fruit is not included as its own category. In a recent study, the motor skills and learning of older rats who consumed blueberry extract improved to match the ability of much younger rats, implying that people who consume blueberries may be able to reverse cognitive decline resulting from age. Berries contain anthocyanin, a phytochemical that reduces damage from free radicals, radiation and inflammation, thus also helping reduce your chances of Alzheimer’s by protecting the brain from “oxidative stress.” In addition, like broccoli, berries provide antioxidants that preserve telomeres.
Walnuts provide omega-3 fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats that are good for your heart. They also provide omega-6, Vitamin E, folate, Vitamin B6 and magnesium, all found to boost mood and decrease memory loss.
Like berries, avocados can help decrease your chance of Alzheimer’s. They contain monounsaturated fat, which lowers the bad cholesterol linked to the development of Alzheimer’s, and increases blood flow to the brain. In addition, consuming avocados helps lower blood pressure, and so also decreases risk of hypertension, a condition that often contributes to cognitive decay. In fact, lower blood pressure supports overall brain health.
Drinks: Milk and Lemonade/Fruit Juice
We’ve all heard the old adage, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” but maybe there is a reason to do so. Milk provides Vitamin D, low levels of which are associated with depression, and Vitamin B12, a lack of which causes low levels of S-adenosylmethionine, used in the brain to process chemicals that balance mood. Milk also provides thiamine, which the body cannot produce on its own. A thiamine deficiency can cause Korsakoff’s syndrome, a condition that affects memory and balance, and can cause ataxia (lack of muscle coordination), and other symptoms.
While we’re often warned against indulging in too many sugary drinks, an occasional lemonade or fruit juice can provide us with a natural form of glucose that helps the body process sugar from carbs, and temporarily boosts memory, alertness and mental ability.
If you’ve ever needed a reason to justify eating more chocolate, here it is: The Vitamin E found in dark chocolate decreases cognitive decline with age. In addition, dark chocolate contains caffeine, which improves focus and stimulates endorphin production, thus kick-starting a sense of well-being and a feeling of happiness. Along with Vitamin E and caffeine, consuming dark chocolate provides you with flavanol, an antioxidant that increases blood flow to brain.
The Smart Plate: A Meal to Power your Brain
After all this talk of food, your stomach might be growling. Here’s how you can create your own smart plate for dinner tonight. First, include a fist-sized portion of fatty fish or turkey garnished with one-quarter avocado, sliced thinly. According to Carol Sorgen’s article, “Eat Smart for a Healthier Brain,” available on WebMD, because avocados contain high levels of fat, experts recommend eating only one quarter to one half of an avocado daily. As a side, include a small portion of broccoli garnished with chopped walnuts. You can also add nuts to cereal, yogurt, desserts, and meats. The experts in Sorgen’s article recommend consuming one ounce per day. They also recommend eating half a cup of beans daily, so go ahead and add a scoop to your plate, right beside your broccoli. For dessert, enjoy half an ounce to one ounce of dark chocolate (the daily recommendation), shaved over a quarter cup of blueberries. Sorgen’s nutritionists recommend consuming one cup of fresh, frozen or freeze-dried berries a day. Oh, and don’t forget to wash it all down with a tall glass of milk!
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