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Eating Healthy Is Good for Your Brain

Survey finds that people who eat nutritious foods report being more mentally sharp

Various healthy foods in pattern on blue

Adam Voorhes / Gallery Stock

Most adults don’t eat the daily allotments from the five food groups recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

En español | While there’s still no magic bullet that will guarantee a healthy brain, a new AARP survey points to a promising nutritional formula: What’s good for the rest of the body is good for the brain. The trick, experts say, is getting people to follow this commonsense guidance.

Adults age 40 and over who say they eat healthy foods most of the time are twice as likely as those who rarely eat a nutritious diet to rate their mental sharpness as “excellent” or “very good,” according to a new AARP consumer survey on brain health and nutrition. 

The more fruits, vegetables and fish respondents say they eat, the better they rate their brain health and overall health. Sixty-three percent of the adults surveyed say they eat a healthy diet up to three or four days a week. Those who eat seafood in a typical week, but not red meat, report better brain health and higher average mental well-being scores than individuals who have red meat but not seafood.  

The survey results are in line with new recommendations by AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), which conclude that a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with better brain health and that eating fish and other seafood seems to improve cognitive function. In addition, excessive amounts of alcohol, saturated fats and salt are all harmful to brain health, according to the GCBH. 

The foods that researchers say lead to brain health are the same ones that studies consistently show promote good heart health.

“Many of us have gotten used to the idea of heart-healthy foods, but now we know that those same foods can make a big difference in our brain health, as well,” says Sarah Lock, AARP senior vice president for policy and executive director of GCBH.

Most adults don’t eat the daily allotment from the five food groups recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ChooseMyPlate initiative. It recommends people over 30 eat: 1.5 to 2 cups of fruits; 2 to 3 cups of vegetables; 3 cups of dairy; 5 to 7 ounces of grains; and 5 to 6 ounces of proteins. Only 1 percent of survey respondents say they eat the ideal number of servings from all five food groups, and one-third say they fall short in every food category. Women report eating better than men, and adults ages 40 to 54 cite more barriers that prevent them from eating well compared to adults over 65.

Among the reasons respondents say they don’t eat healthily are: It would be too expensive; it’s “hard” to eat healthy; their family would not like the taste; there’s a lack of nearby stores that sell healthy food; and the belief that eating healthy won’t make a difference. A majority agree that if their doctor recommended a change in diet, they’d be more likely to do it. But only 37 percent say their physician has ever mentioned diet, and only 10 percent say their doctor has recommended they follow an eating plan.

“No one food is the answer to brain health,” said Lock. “Rather, it’s a healthy pattern of your diet with lots of different types of fruits, veggies, fish and healthy fats, along with cutting down on salt, sugar, highly saturated fats and empty calories that seems to help the most.”

Nearly 9 in 10 say they would likely eat healthier if they knew it would lower the risks of cognitive decline, heart disease and diabetes.

GfK conducted the survey for AARP using its nationally representative online panel. A total of 2,033 adults age 40 and older were surveyed between Oct. 25 and Nov. 8. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

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