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What you eat isn’t just about keeping your heart healthy and waistline trim – it’s also about keeping your brain in tip-top shape. The food we choose to eat, or not, has a powerful effect on our brains, especially as we age.
And you might be surprised just how many foods that are a natural fit for your first meal of the day have the nutritional makeup to improve your state of mind. Your breakfast can benefit your mental health – and your overall brain health. But sadly, the sugary boxed cereals, greasy bacon and calorie-bomb pastries that people gravitate towards for breakfast work against bolstering these key areas of health.
Instead, start a day on a mental high by working these ingredients into your breakfast menu, all of which have what it takes to keep you as sharp as a whip. You’ll also want to try our make-ahead breakfast pudding recipe that puts all of these brain-boosting foods into play into one big bundle of early-day nutrition.
1. Chia seeds
To help ward off cognitive decline, it’s a good idea to work more soluble fiber into your diet. A recent study in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience discovered that people who consumed the most dietary fiber, and specifically soluble fiber, were at a lower risk of developing debilitating dementia. According to the National Institute on Aging, dementia is “the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.”
The mechanisms behind the fiber-brain link are currently unknown but might involve the soluble fiber helping better manage blood sugar and cholesterol levels. There might also be interactions that take place between the gut and the brain – fiber can regulate the composition of the microbiome which, in turn, may impact neuroinflammation.
With up to nearly 10 grams of fiber in each 2-tablespoon serving, there’s no denying that chia seeds are a fiber powerhouse. And most of this fiber is in a soluble form. (This is why it tends to form a gel-like texture when mixed with liquid.) Other brain-benefiting nutritional highlights of these tiny seeds include omega-3 fat, iron and magnesium.
It’s easy enough to add chia seeds to oatmeal, breakfast smoothies or a bowl of morning yogurt. You can also sprinkle them over your avocado toast if that is your breakfast jam.
2. Baby spinach
For better brain health, it might be time to add some green foods to your breakfast routine. One study in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience found that middle-aged adults with higher levels of lutein – a carotenoid antioxidant found abundantly in green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale – had neural responses that were more on par with younger individuals.
Spinach is also a very good source of vitamin K, an essential nutrient that may play a role in how our brain cells function for improved cognitive performance. Popeye’s favorite green also contains nitrates, which are converted in the body to nitric oxide that can improve blood flow to the brain by vasodilating blood vessels. This may result in an uptick in mental performance.
Eating more nutrient-dense leafy greens and other vegetables has also been linked to being less likely to develop poor thinking skills and memory problems over time. What’s more, a Rush University study found that people who ate one or two servings of leafy greens daily had the cognitive abilities of someone 11 years younger than people who ate none.
Since it’s fairly neutral in flavor, you can blend baby spinach into morning smoothies without them tasting like a salad bar. Also, add the greens to scrambled eggs or a green-based shakshuka. Try making savory oatmeal with spinach and topped with a poached egg or sliced avocado. And, yes, breakfast salad can be a thing!
3. Greek yogurt
A healthy brain may start with a healthy gut. In a study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, nutrition researchers looked at associations between diet, the gut microbiota and symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression in healthy adults. They found that participants with a greater abundance of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, two genera of bacteria that can be found in foods like yogurt, in their guts were less susceptible to mood disturbances like anxiety and depression.
The study provides further evidence that the human gastrointestinal microbiota – the collection of trillions of bacteria that reside throughout our digestive tract – may play a role in brain functioning. One way that microbes like those present in protein-packed Greek yogurt are thought to be connected with mental health is through microbial signaling from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve, which provides a pathway for communication between the gut and the brain. Microbial-produced metabolites including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and acetylcholine can influence communication along the gut-microbiota-brain axis.
To help keep your mood up, consider going nuts for walnuts after rolling out of bed. Using data on nut consumption and depression scores from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles discovered that walnut consumers had a 26 percent lower risk for depression symptoms compared to non-nut consumers, with an association being stronger for women than men.
The nutrition matrix in walnuts, which includes omega-3 fatty acids, is likely behind these feel-good results. In a Nutritional Neuroscience study, older adults with higher levels of alpha-linolenic acid, the main omega-3 in walnuts, in their blood performed better on tests of fluid intelligence, which helps when we are faced with new problems to solve. People who enjoy a daily serving or two of walnuts are also probably going to be more likely to eat a diet that’s overall higher in foods that benefit the brain.
And eating nutrition-dense nuts, in general, has been tied to improved cognitive functioning. One reason why might be the vitamin E that nuts supply to our diets. A paper published in Neurobiology of Aging discovered that people with higher levels of vitamin E were up to 15 percent less likely to suffer from cognitive impairment. As a potent antioxidant, vitamin E can protect brain membranes from oxidative damage and inflammation.
It’s easy enough to add walnuts to breakfast favorites like yogurt, porridge, granola and smoothies. Or, snack on walnuts by themselves – you can add a wide range of different flavors, like the heat in our Spiced Walnuts recipe.
Smart people do rise and dine on blueberries. Berries earn a special mention in the brain-focused MIND diet, a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, which some research has shown can lower the chances of developing brain conditions like Alzheimer’s. Of all the berries at the supermarket, blueberries are especially rich in a class of antioxidants called anthocyanins that may protect the brain from oxidative stress and strengthen brain cell communication. And a recent study in the journal Neurology found greater intakes of anthocyanins can help stave off cognitive decline.
If you can find them, fresh or frozen wild blueberries appear to have an even higher antioxidant content than the larger cultivated berries. That likely can be attributed to the former having a higher skin-to-flesh ratio.
A little dose of morning chocolate may help you feel like a million bucks. A study published in the journal Depression & Anxiety linked eating dark chocolate to a lower risk of depressive symptoms, compared with consuming non-dark chocolate. Data showed people who ate the most chocolate, from 104 grams to 454 grams per day, had a 57 percent lower risk of depressive symptoms, compared with people who did not eat any chocolate.
This is likely because cacao, the key ingredient in dark chocolate, is rich in flavonoid antioxidants that may help improve brain functioning via their antioxidant prowess. Stimulants in chocolate, including theobromine and caffeine, can also contribute to an improved mood.
Natural cacao powder is a great way to work these antioxidants and feel-good stimulants into your breakfast routine. And it comes without the added sugar found in chocolate bars. Keep in mind that Dutch-processed cocoa powder has been treated with alkali to make it less bitter tasting, but this also greatly diminishes antioxidant levels.
A spoonful of natural cacao powder can instantly turn a bowl of oatmeal or smoothie into a chocolatey delight. Or, stir some into pancake or waffle batter to make them taste like you are having dessert for breakfast.
Make yourself a powerhouse breakfast filled with brain foods
While all of the foods mentioned above have their own individual brain health benefits, you can also combine them to maximize their impact. For the ultimate morning meal – plus the perks of an improved mood, better cognitive function and overall brain health for the long-term – try this easy pudding recipe.
Hidden Greens Chia Pudding
- Place milk, yogurt, blueberries, spinach, maple syrup or honey, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, and a pinch of salt in a blender container and blend until smooth.
- Divide mixture between two wide-mouth jars, add chia seeds and stir to combine. Seal shut again and chill overnight.
- In the morning, serve chia pudding topped with walnuts and additional blueberries.