Keeping your brain healthy is as important as keeping your heart and other organs in top shape. That’s because your brain influences every part of your body including, of course, your mental health. With poor brain health, cognitive health suffers but so does your mood and mental health.
What can you do to support a healthy brain? Eat a balanced diet, stay physically active, get enough sleep, and manage stress. it’s not just what you eat but also what you don’t eat that’s damaging to brain health. Let’s look at some types of food to avoid for brain health.
Ultra-processed foods and refined carbohydrates
Ultra-processed foods and refined carbohydrates are the enemies of brain health. Ultra-processed foods are foods stripped of their fiber, vitamins, and minerals to give them a longer shelf life and make them easier to prepare. Refined carbohydrates include white bread, pasta, and rice products like white rice and flour tortillas; cookies, cakes, and muffins made with white flour stripped of fiber and nutrients.
Both refined carbohydrates and ultra-processed foods tend to be high in sugar and rapidly absorbed carbs, which can cause an unhealthy spike in blood sugar when you eat them. Why is this important for health? Studies link poor blood sugar control and insulin resistance with an increased risk of dementia.
Refined carbs are also calorie-dense, without providing many nutrients. So, these foods leave you feeling hungry sooner than fiber-rich carbohydrates, like whole grains, which provide more satisfaction while simultaneously boosting brain power.
Fried food does the health of your brain no favors either. Fried food is high in fat and calories and may contain small quantities of trans fat (which is linked to cardiovascular disease and stroke). Fried foods are also high in sodium, which can lead to bloating, water retention, and an increase in blood pressure.
Additionally, fried food contains saturated fats that raise the risk of atherosclerosis. These fats contribute to clogged arteries linked to vascular dementia, the second most common type after Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, fried foods can also lead to weight gain, which is another risk factor for developing memory problems later in life.
Sugary drinks and treats
The most common source of added sugar in the American diet is soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, and other sweetened beverages. These sugary drinks are a major contributor to weight gain and type 2 diabetes, and they have little or no nutritional value. Soft drinks and other beverages that contain high-fructose corn syrup (a type of sweetener in ultra-processed foods) increase triglycerides, a type of fat circulating in your bloodstream. And when you regularly drink soda or sugary fruit juices, you can also develop resistance to insulin, which is also a contributor to poor brain health and dementia.
Trans fat is a type of fat found in processed and fried foods that are linked to negative health effects, including heart disease and stroke. You find trans-fat naturally in some animal products but it’s also in processed foods, such as margarine, shortening, cookies, cakes, and other bakery products. Some studies also show a correlation between consuming trans-fat and saturated fat and the risk of developing dementia.
The good news? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed a regulation to remove trans fat from processed foods and to list the amount of trans fat on food labels if there are 0.5 grams per serving or more. However, manufacturers can state on a fat label that a product has zero grams of trans-fat if it’s less than 0.5 grams, meaning some ultra-processed foods still contain trans-fat in small quantities.
The FDA’s regulations on trans-fat labeling have helped reduce this harmful fat in foods. However, it is still important to read labels and avoid processed and fried foods that may contain lesser amounts of trans fat. Consuming too much trans-fat can lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease and stroke, and a stroke at the very least will negatively impact brain health.
Some studies also show a link between consuming trans-fat and saturated fat on the risk of developing dementia. Saturated fats are fats that cause a rise in cholesterol and are in animal-based foods like meat and dairy.
Few would argue that excessive alcohol is bad for your health. It can damage several organs in the human body and is known to increase the risk of diseases like cirrhosis and liver cancer. Even though it might be obvious that alcohol is not good for your body but it’s also harmful to your brain.
Alcohol, as most people know, is a depressant. It acts on the central nervous system and slows down various brain functions. Alcohol can affect memory, reaction time, coordination, and judgment–all important skills for daily living. But alcohol is also a neurotoxin that can disrupt communication in the brain. People who drink too much alcohol have a higher risk of developing problems with memory, concentration, and coordination.
Over time, people who drink heavily are also at greater risk of developing dementia and mental health issues.
The effects of alcohol on the brain include:
- Disruption of communication between neurons
- Changes in neuron shapes
- Damaged neurons or nerve fibers
Although there is evidence that drinking red wine could modestly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, the most recent research suggests alcohol harms health.
Now you know what types of foods to avoid for brain health and why. On the plus side, eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and moderate amounts of fatty fish may have positive benefits for the health of your brain. So, take small steps and make smarter choices that will keep your brain healthy throughout life.
- “Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells? How Alcohol Affects Your Brain.” 17 Sept. 2019, healthline.com/health/does-alcohol-kill-brain-cells.
- “Trans Fat | FDA – U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/trans-fat.
- “Does drinking alcohol kill brain cells – Mayo Clinic Health System.” 29 Dec. 2015, mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/does-drinking-alcohol-kill-brain-cells.
- Gentreau M, Chuy V, Féart C, Samieri C, Ritchie K, Raymond M, Berticat C, Artero S. Refined carbohydrate-rich diet is associated with long-term risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in apolipoprotein E ε4 allele carriers. Alzheimers Dement. 2020 Jul;16(7):1043-1053. doi: 10.1002/alz.12114. Epub 2020 Jun 7. PMID: 32506713.
- Barnard ND, Bunner AE, Agarwal U. Saturated and trans fats and dementia: a systematic review. Neurobiol Aging. 2014 Sep;35 Suppl 2:S65-73. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2014.02.030. Epub 2014 May 15. PMID: 24916582.
- “Trans Fats | American Stroke Association.” stroke.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/trans-fat.
- Diehl T, Mullins R, Kapogiannis D. Insulin resistance in Alzheimer’s disease. Transl Res. 2017 May;183:26-40. doi: 10.1016/j.trsl.2016.12.005. Epub 2016 Dec 13. PMID: 28034760; PMCID: PMC5393926.
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