Dear Dietitian: Exploring the connection between food and brain health

Leanne McCrate
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group

Dear Dietitian,

I enjoyed your recent column on functional foods and heart health. I eat healthy and exercise regularly. I’ve also read about functional foods that are good for your brain. What is your opinion?


Dear Ken,

The concept of functional foods began in Eastern cultures, where many believe food and medicine come from the same source. These societies have used herbal remedies for years to treat certain illnesses and maintain health.

While there is no legal definition of functional food, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) defines them as “whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet regularly at effective levels.”

Functional foods have gained popularity in western cultures due to scientific discoveries that connect certain dietary factors to disease. For example, there is a link between a diet high in saturated fat and heart disease. Conversely, when saturated fats are replaced with unsaturated in a diet that is also low in cholesterol, the risk of heart disease goes down.

Many of the same foods that aid in heart health are also good brain food. Listed below are foods that may help prevent mental decline:

Green, leafy vegetables (Kale, spinach, broccoli, turnip greens) - Antioxidants lutein, folate, and beta carotene protect the brain from free radicals, thereby possibly slowing mental decline.

Walnuts (all nuts are a good source of monounsaturated fat) - Walnuts contain an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, which lowers blood pressure. This action helps the heart and brain.

Flavonoids (dark chocolate, red wine, green tea) - Improvement in cognitive function of the elderly.

Choline (egg yolks, chicken, veal) - May slow mental decline.

Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines) - Omega-3s may slow cognitive decline.

Mushrooms (shitake, golden, oyster, white button mushrooms) - May slow mild cognitive decline

Coffee (caffeinated and decaffeinated) - Caffeine may improve mood by increasing serotonin levels. Improves concentration. Caffeinated and decaf coffee contain antioxidants.

It is important to note that studies on functional foods are limited. Much of the research has been conducted on rodents or in a laboratory. These studies are considered pre-clinical and the same results cannot be predicted in humans.

Human nutrition studies are often expensive and difficult to perform. Many studies rely on volunteers’ recording of their food intake. These food recalls are sometimes inaccurate. It is costly to conduct nutrition research in a hospital setting where the amounts and types of foods eaten are controlled.

That said, the foods listed above are healthy as they provide fiber, vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients. Remember to limit coffee to four cups per day, as too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Up to 400 mg of caffeine each day is generally considered safe for healthy adults.

Stay tuned for next week’s column. Until then, be healthy!

Dear Dietitian

Leanne McCrate is an award-winning dietitian with over 15 years of clinical experience. She is registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration. Have a nutrition question? Email it to DearDietitian411@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.