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May 27, 2021

The Right Foods Help You Build a Better Brain

In his bestselling book, Keep Sharp, neurosurgeon and CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD, explores how we can keep our brains healthy and sharp. Until recently, the scientific community thought the brain developed only until a certain age. But that turns out to be false, you can enjoy a quick-thinking brain throughout your entire life.

One component of maintaining a healthy brain is eating the right foods. Dr. Gupta emphasizes that the best foods don’t come with nutritional labels or health claims. Instead, look for the whole, real food that you find around the perimeter of the grocery store. 

Dr. Gupta uses the ABC method to distinguish what to eat. The A-list comprises the top-quality foods we should rely on as the mainstays of our diet. B-list foods are healthy foods to occasionally include, and the C-list is foods we should try to limit. If you are looking for a specific diet that parallels the ABC method, Dr. Gupta points to the Mediterranean Diet, which relies on fish, green vegetables, and whole grains. 

Here is Dr. Gupta’s ABC List to Keep Sharp:

A-List Foods to Consume Regularly

  • Fresh vegetables (in particular, leafy greens such as spinach, chard, kale, arugula, collard and mustard greens, romaine lettuce, Swiss chard, turnip greens)
  • Whole berries (not juice)
  • Fish and seafood
  • Healthy fats (e.g., extra virgin olive oil, avocados, whole eggs)
  • Nuts and seeds

B-List Foods to Include Occasionally

  • Beans and other legumes
  • Whole fruits (in addition to berries)
  • Low sugar, low-fat dairy (e.g., plain yogurt, cottage cheese)
  • Poultry
  • Whole grains

C-List Foods to Limit

  • Fried food
  • Pastries, sugary foods
  • Processed foods
  • Red meat (e.g., beef, lamb, pork, buffalo, duck)
  • Red meat products (e.g., bacon)
  • Whole fat dairy that’s high in saturated fat (e.g., cheese and butter)
  • Salt

Portion control is also critically important to a brain-healthy diet. Americans love big plates filled with food. Dr. Gupta writes that it’s fine to splurge on holidays and special occasions, but we need to be mindful of how much food we consume on a regular basis. Preparing most of your food at home, measuring amounts and calories accurately, and not going back for seconds are three easy things you can do to gain control of your food consumption. Dr. Gupta also recommends using smaller plates. 

Hydration is another point of focus for Dr. Gupta. As we age, our ability to perceive thirst diminishes. This explains why dehydration is common among older people. Dehydration is also a leading cause of admission into emergency rooms and hospitals for the elderly. A good rule of thumb is if you feel any thirst, you’ve already waited too long. (And by the same token, if you feel stuffed, you’ve already over-eaten.)

Dr. Gupta’s mantra is “drink instead of eat.” We often mistake hunger for thirst. Even moderate amounts of dehydration can sap your energy and your brain rhythm. Because our brains are not good at distinguishing thirst and hunger, if food is around, we tend to eat. As a result we walk around overstuffed and chronically dehydrated, and the link between hydration and cognitive ability is well-established.

Keep Sharp includes chapters on other important brain related topics including exercise, sleep and relaxation, purpose, and social connections. It’s a good read, accessible to the general public, backed by the latest scientific research, with sound advice on how you can stay sharp your entire life.

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