Nutrition experts reveal the worst foods and drinks for brain health
There are many reasons to want to eat well, but among them, one priority may be to promote your brain health.
From reducing your risk of dementia to supporting mental health, experts say there are good reasons to limit these foods and drinks if you aren’t doing so already.
Check out these details — and the reasons for limiting these food and drink choices.
Fruit juices and other sugary beverages
It’s time to cut back on juice and sugar-sweetened beverages.
“Many people [drink] a tall glass of fruit juice in their breakfast without realizing how badly it is affecting their brain. Fruit juices have some useful nutrients, but still, they are sugary beverages that have almost no fiber in them,” says Susan Kelly, registered dietitian with pacific-analytics.com, a diagnostic lab that conducts different medical tests.
“The consumption of sugary beverages is blamed for lowering total brain volume and hippocampal volume,” she continues.
Kelly addes that it’s best to eat whole fruit instead of consuming it in drink form. The British Heart Foundation says blending fruit causes natural sugars “to be released from within the cell walls of the fruit and become ‘free sugars’” — with include added sugars like honey and maple syrup.
Too much alcohol
Long-term happy hour drinking or dinner-with-vino ritual is apparently no good for your noggin.
“Alcoholic beverages affect your brain’s communication pathways to a great extent. It becomes difficult for a person who drinks a lot of alcohol to remember things and process new data while leaving him depressed and disordered easily,” says Kelly.
“To avoid such damage to the brain, women should not drink more than one glass of alcohol and men should stick to two glasses in a day.”
Why are tasty treats like pastries, ice cream, yogurt, cookies and candy bad for your brain? The answer lies in their refined sugar content.
“The gut contains beneficial bacteria known as the microbiota, which plays a key role in maintaining health in both the body and mind. These health benefits include mental health as well. This is known as the ‘gut-brain axis,’” offers Trista K. Best, registered dietitian with Balance One Supplements (balanceone.com).
She adds that to be in-tune with this “gut-brain axis,” it’s important to understand the enteric nervous system, which is a vast network of neurons that line your intestinal tract, and carry messages from the gut to the brain and back.
“Researchers have found that a direct line of communication exists between the brain and your enteric nervous system: this is what they call the gut-brain axis,” she says, referencing a paper published in Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal.
“This line of communication works both ways, linking the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal function. This connection makes it vitally important to keep the gut healthy and the microbiome in balance,” Best says, noting that sugar in the diet can lead to gut dysbiosis [an imbalance].
Like refined sugar, minimize intake of refined grain products like white bread, pizza, burritos, white rice and white pasta, to help support a healthy and functioning brain.
“Refined grains elevate inflammation and can worsen one’s mental health,” says Sheetal DeCaria, an M.D. who specializes in pain and mental health (revitalizemedcenter.com).
“Elevated levels of inflammation have been linked to mental health disorders, including depression and fatigue,” she continues, pointing to 2019 research published in the peer-reviewed journal, Frontiers in Immunology.
Instead of refined grains, opt for whole grain products like whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, barley, oatmeal, brown rice and millet — to name a few.
Consuming too many calories
It may not a specific food or category of food, but guzzling up too many calories regularly can potentially be bad news for brain health, according to experts.
“In addition, overeating or consuming a lot of calories in a shorter period is linked with an increased risk of memory-related problems and overall cognitive impairment,” says Kelly.
“Overeating causes obesity that contributes to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart diseases, which are believed to be further causing Alzheimer’s and other brain illnesses.”
Diet soft drinks
If you think that diet soda is better for your brain, be warned.
“Studies have shown even diet soft drinks, which some are led to believe are healthier options, have been tied to elevated brain inflammation and increased risk of depression,” says DeCaria.
The double-board certified integrative pain physician points to 2015 research published in the journal, Missouri Medicine. And while more scientific inquiry is necessary, there are many other health reasons to ditch diet soda (it may decrease bone density, according to a 2020 study on high consumption of soft drinks and an increased risk of fractures) — so perhaps this may be the straw that breaks the diet cola’s back.
Another type of foods to steer clear of to bolster brain health are the snacks that cause inflammation, according to Kelly.
“Junk, fried foods, sugary products and red meat are the enemies of your brain if you overindulge in them,” says Kelly.