6 Foods to Avoid for Better Brain Health


Did you know that what you eat can have a significant impact on your brain health (including your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia)? In fact, groundbreaking research released in 2017 revealed conclusive links between diet and Alzheimer’s disease.

“There is also growing evidence that our gut health is directly linked to brain health,” says Liz Weiss, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of multiple family-oriented nutrition books. “Our microbiome depends on a diet rich in fiber…so it’s important to choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.”

As important as it is to consume foods that can improve brain health, it’s equally crucial to avoid those that have been shown to damage the brain. Here are the top six foods to avoid for better brain health.

1. Sugary drinks

High amount of sugar in beverages


You can enjoy the occasional soft drink without any negative health consequences, right? Unfortunately, that’s a common misconception. A 2017 Boston University study demonstrates a relationship between brain shrinkage and memory loss in the brain and drinking sugary beverages (including sodas and fruit juices). According to the study’s findings, brain volume is negatively affected by sugary drinks.

“A diet with high amounts of sugar has been linked to brain inflammation and mental health disorders, so limit the amount of sugar you consume for healthy brain function,” advises Caitlin Hoff, a health and safety investigator with ConsumerSafety.org. “By limiting your sugar intake, you will also be able to control your body’s blood glucose levels better, which will boost your brain’s memory functions and reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes.”

Healthier options: water, seltzer, pure fruit juice, hot or iced tea

2. Diet soda

Brown soda in a clear glass


Many people think they can remove the risk of health consequences if they swap sugar-sweetened beverages for diet versions. But turns out that these artificially sweetened options also have a negative impact on brain health.

“Artificial sweeteners like aspartame used in sugar-free food items may not be as great a substitute as the claims make it out to be,” says Hoff. “A study done in 2014 found that their test subjects were more likely to experience depression and struggled through cognitive tests while consuming a high-aspartame diet.”

And according to the aforementioned Boston University study, those who drink a single can of diet soda per day are potentially tripling their chances of developing both dementia and stroke. Doctors suggest avoiding diet drinks altogether for the sake of your brain health.

Healthier options: water, seltzer, pure fruit juice, hot or iced tea

3. Refined grains and carbs

Plain bread


Whether or not you give any credence to modern gluten-free diet trends, it’s important to be aware of the research on refined grains and carbs (think white bread, white rice) and brain health.

According to neurologist David Perlmutter, president of the Perlmutter Health Center in Naples, FL, grains can be linked to a number of modern ailments, from chronic headaches to dementia. Perlmutter theorizes that human genes evolved over millennia to consume diets high in fat and low in carbs. However, the modern American diet is much higher in carbs than fats.

A Mayo Clinic study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease seems to support Perlmutter’s theory. It shows that people aged 70 and older who consume diets high in carbohydrates are nearly four times more likely to develop cognitive impairment than those whose diet is relatively higher in protein and fat.

Healthier options: whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, oats

4. Saturated fats

assorted junk food


Saturated fat is an unhealthy type of fat that contains a high amount of fatty acid molecules without double bonds between carbon molecules. While foods loaded with saturated fats often taste good, they’re not so good for your brain. According to a review published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, there are several lines of evidence supporting a correlation between dementia risk and dietary fatty acid composition.

You may be dismayed to learn two of the biggest sources of saturated fat in the typical U.S. diet: cheese and pizza, according to the National Cancer Institute. Becky Kerkenbush, a clinical dietitian and member of the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also advises avoiding or limiting butter, margarine, fried food, fast food and pastries, all of which tend to be high in saturated fat and trans fats.

Plus, saturated fats “are harmful for your arteries, so that can accelerate or make dementia worse as you’re tying to improve blood flow to the brain to deliver nutrients to the organ,” notes registered dietitian Julie Upton, co-author of “Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active Life.”

Healthier options: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, salmon, tuna and eggs or other healthy fats such as olive oil or avocado

5. Red meat

Buyer woman chooses chopped meat in shop


Americans are reportedly eating more red meat than ever before, and it may be doing more harm than good. While you chew on a tender piece of beef or pork, it could be slowly chewing away at your brain health. Red meat is rich in iron and can raise iron levels in the brain.

According to research from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, elevated iron levels in the brain can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses related to aging.

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, MRI scans show an iron buildup in the hippocampus (the brain region that is damaged first over the course of the disease). During late-stage Alzheimer’s, MRI scans show a buildup of iron in the thalamus as well. Scientists have found an association between increased iron levels in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and brain tissue damage.

Healthier options: Fish, chicken, tofu

6. Alcohol (in excess)

"Bartender reaching for bottle of spirits, close-up"


An important new study shows that excessive alcohol use is a risk factor for the onset of dementia. It’s also been linked to early-onset dementia, which occurs before age 65.

“Too much alcohol as an adult exacerbates and accelerates dementia,” says Upton.

To highlight how damaging alcohol abuse can be, consider the fact that the life expectancy of individuals with alcohol use disorders is shortened, by more than 20 years on average. And among those who die from alcohol-related disorders, dementia is a leading cause of death.

Healthier options: water, seltzer, pure fruit juice, hot or iced tea


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