5 Foods To Get Rid Of For Better Brain Health

Food. Yes, we all need it to survive. With each morsel, the body works hard to extract the fuel it needs to keep you moving and grooving. A sub-optimal, less-than-stellar diet will keep you alive but that’s about it. By middle age, if not sooner, problems will likely begin to crop up -- digestive issues, mood disorders, metabolic problems, assorted chronic diseases, the list goes on.

While you may have a decent idea of what makes for a healthy diet, in times of stress, it’s all-too-common to default to whatever’s easiest/fastest/right in front of you, usually not a very healthy option. {Instant ramen, anyone?) Worse, a lot of these foods are simply awful for brain health in the near term – think brain fog, anxiety, depression – and the long-term prospects are worse -- increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative neurological diseases.

The classic bad-for-your-brain foods are the kinds I’ve talked a lot about over the years – they’re the ones that inflame the body, and drive up risk for any number of chronic health conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The first step to protect brain health is to steer clear of pro-inflammatory foods. Topping the list: sugar, refined/processed carbs, industrial seed oils (aka vegetable oils), processed foods, and factory-farmed meats. They are the brain health robbers that perpetuate inflammation –and they’re the stuff that feeds the fire, so avoid at all costs!

But, specifically, which brain-hurting foods do you need to kick now? Here are the brain’s biggest dietary offenders:

1) Processed Foods, Fried Foods & Fast Foods

They may be convenient but when it comes to your brain, there’s nothing good to say about processed foods, fast foods and fried foods. What you may save in prep time comes at a massive price to your noggin (not to mention the rest of you). Thanks to the copious amounts of added sugar, industrial oils and cheap, virtually nutrient-free ingredients blended, baked or fried into them, processed foods are an inflammation-triggering bonanza, and that’s bad news for your brain. Though the mechanisms aren’t fully worked out, the negative result are – and studies suggest that eating a diet heavy in processed foods cuts brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) production, a key protein that supports healthy neurological function. Fall short on BDNF long enough and you are putting your long-term memory directly in harm’s way.

Consider this study of almost 20,000 people, which found that people who ate a diet heavy in processed and fried foods tended to score markedly lower on learning and memory tests.  Other studies have found a link between metabolic syndrome and bad brain health, both deterioration of brain tissue and cognitive impairment. What’s a great way to drive up blood sugar and waist circumference, and bring on metabolic syndrome? – eating crappy processed food.

To sidestep inflammation, start by striking the following from your shopping list: heat-and-eat frozen meals, frozen pizzas and breakfast sandwiches; fast foods; fried foods; bacon and bacon alternatives like turkey bacon; processed meats like sausages, hot dogs; processed, dried or cured meats like salami and jerky; jarred/bottled sauces and commercial salad dressings.

2) Processed Snacks

If bags of crunchy treats and snacks are your Achilles heel, it’s time to completely rethink the whole category. As with other processed foods, they’re loaded with inflammatory ingredients plus dollops of bad fats in the form of industrial seed oils, and yes, even those highly inflammatory trans fats which, despite having been banned in 2018, are still found in small, just-under-the-legal-limits. It’s still a crime against your health. If you’re eating several processed food products a day – snacks or other foods – even small amounts of trans fats can add up, and push inflammation to ignition levels. What’s more, these foods pack a lot of salt, sugar, calories  and too much pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats while delivering little in the way of satiety or anything remotely resembling real nutrition. Truly the worst of all worlds.

A few essential snacks to ditch: Bagged, boxed or tubed chips, from potato and corn to health-washed veggie chips like plantain and sweet potato; crackers; cookies; ‘sports bars’, meal replacement bars and ‘energy bars’; packs of microwavable popcorn; packs of instant noodles. If you have a chip habit that needs a rethink, switch to home-made baked kale chips as a crunchy and nutritious alternative.

3) Sweet Drinks & Sugary Beverages

I get it, plain water isn’t super exciting, but the kind of excitement you get from sweet drinks is not the kind you want. Sugar is the devil who sits on far too many shoulders, and the sweet stuff, in all its forms – especially the liquid kind –  will drag your body to the gates of neurological and all-round physiological hell with a cavalcade of potentially life-altering neurological and metabolic disorders.  

While sodas, fruit juices, energy and sports drinks – most of which are sweetened with obesity-driving high fructose corn syrup — may be catnip to our sweet-loving taste buds, the more sweet you drink (or eat), the more impaired your sense of taste becomes. As with any addictive drug, more of the stuff is needed to get the same effect, even more so if you’re already overweight or obese, according to Cornell University researchers. With your senses dulled and your desire for sweetness sharpened, consumption increases, and before you know it, so does your risk of diabetes and Alzheimer’s. All in all, a terrible price to pay for a bad habit that can be so easily fixed.

Step one: to save your brain, get those sweet drinks out of your life. Next, if cold turkey isn’t the quitting style that works for you, please do not trade them in for  ‘diet’ drinks or anything sweetened with aspartame, which brings along with it a litany of health down sides. Instead, try tapering off by blending your preferred drinks with increasing amounts of sparkling water, or certain types of mineral waters whose contents may actually confer brain benefits, according to a recent Japanese study.

What to drink instead? Unsweetened black, green or red teas; sparkling water, either on its own or with lemon and stevia; herbal teas, like naturally sugar-free hibiscus which has an appealing fruity taste, loads of antioxidants and may have a positive impact on blood sugar and blood pressure.

4) Alcoholic Beverages

Alcoholic beverages, served straight up over ice or mixed with other sweetened liquids, are brutal on your brain. Not only are the sweetened ingredients a source of trouble but the toxin that is alcohol, even in small amounts, quickly suppresses neuronal activity in your brain, slowing reflexes and slurring speech, making you unsteady on your feet and fogging your memory. Although these effects tend to be short-lived, with more drinking comes longer-term effects, namely, brain damage. For chronic drinkers, studies show that changes in neurotransmitter activity and even structural abnormalities are part of the alcohol package, making themselves known in a variety of ugly ways, including brain shrinkage, memory problems, mental health issues, personality changes, depression and even dementia.

What’s more, even not drinking to excess can boost your risk for serious cognitive decline. University of Oxford researchers found in a study of 21,000 middle-aged Brits that drinking a weekly dose of about three pints of beer or five small glasses of wine negatively impacts the brain by promoting a build-up of iron deposits in a key area of the brain. And what makes that a big deal? Well, that build-up has been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – two musts to avoid.

To increase your chances of success kicking the bottle, get support, be it through one-on-one therapeutic treatment, support groups or physician-prescribed medications to treat alcohol dependence. You can also get started by connecting with the U. S. Department of Health and Human services

5) Simple Carbs or ‘Refined Carbs’

Carbs (aka carbohydrates) are an always-hot topic in the nutrition world, in part because if we all simply ate eat fewer of them, our bodies and brains would be a whole lot better off! But not all of them are bad. We do need them to stay healthy, but most of us are eating far more than we need.

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients — carbs, proteins, fats — that constitute the foods we eat. Carbs break down into sugars (technically sugars, starches, and fiber) and can be categorized as simple or complex. Simple and complex carbs can be explained by how quickly the food breaks down in your body. Imagine table sugar (quickly) vs. brown rice (more time).

Carbs provide the body’s most easily accessible energy source, glucose, which is the reason we crave them when we are tired or run-down. In simplest terms: if it breaks down into sugar, it’s a carb, and beyond the sweet stuff, savory foods like bread, pasta, grains, beans, dairy, and starchy vegetables are also full of carbohydrates. So, even though you may not be heaping sugar into your tea, you still may be drowning yourself in carb-generated sugar if, for example, you have a bran muffin for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch and pasta at dinner. All that excess sugar starts circulating through your system, inflammation of the brain and body kick into high gear – exactly what you don’t want if brain health is on your mind.

To curb your carbs, start by: eliminating sugar: white and brown, even if it’s raw, organic and/or non-GMO. Next, pass on grains as much as possible, even the ones you might think are ‘healthy,’ like brown rice, which, thanks to its high carb count dumps loads of sugar into the bloodstream. Go light on beans and legumes which, though nutritious, also break down to sugar, making the pancreas work overtime to produce enough insulin to bring your blood sugar levels down. Same goes for starchy veggies – use a light touch with beets, carrots, corn, parsnips, white and/or sweet potatoes, yams, acorn and butternut squash.

BOTTOM LINE: Your brain health now and decades from now depends a lot on what you feed it. To tend to your grey matter, feed it the good stuff. Brains thrive on whole, farmer’s market and/or organic, nutrient-dense foods – not  sugars, industrial oils, processed foods or factory-farmed meats -- so feed your brain right by piling these health helpers high:

  • Leafy greens and a ‘rainbow’ of colorful non-starchy veggies for maximum vitamins and antioxidants
  • Dark, low-sugar berries
  • Omega-3-rich fish like wild salmon, anchovies, mackerel, and sardines
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Extra virgin olive oil and healthy fats
  • Organic, grass-fed or pasture-raised animals
  • Oolong or green teas

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