When it comes to Sunday night meal prepping, I love using recipes that pack in the nutritional alphabet, from vitamin A to zinc. But with a crazy schedule of deadlines, dinners, and volunteering, I started to wonder if I’m feeding my brain—not just my body—what it really needs to power through.
“The brain is highly sensitive to every bite you take,” says author, filmmaker, and brain health expert Max Lugavere. He would know: After his mother was diagnosed with early dementia, Lugavere made it his mission to understand the causes of and ways to prevent the disease. “I decided to put my journalist hat on and became obsessed with learning everything I could about how diet and lifestyle mediate neurodegenerative disease,” he says.
Almost seven years later, Lugavere has amassed tons of info that, he says, can be used to improve the current and future health of your brain. In his upcoming book Genius Foods (hitting shelves in March), Lugavere dishes out guidelines for crafting a diet that will “make your brain work better, no matter how old you are.”
Here, he shares 6 brilliant—and totally realistic—ways you can tweak your diet for optimal brain health.
1. Load up on fiber
Let’s get science-y: Dietary fiber nourishes gut bacteria that create short chain fatty acids. “These [fatty acids] have been shown to boost protective proteins in the brain like BDNF, what they call a miracle growth protein because it helps promote neuroplasticity and neurogenesis,” Lugavere says.
To ensure he gets his daily fix of fiber, Lugavere digs into a huge salad every single day. (Really.) Some of his go-to fixings include cauliflower, broccolini, and red cabbage. “They’re full of prebiotic fiber, which helps reduce inflammation of the body and boosts BDNF,” he says. “Plus, salads provide an abundance of nutrients and make it really easy to check off so many of your nutritional boxes.”
2. Avoid sugary junk foods
Eating processed foods filled with added sugar can cause your blood sugar levels to rise. And when your blood sugar is chronically elevated, Lugavere says, “that scorches your veins and your arteries. It creates this process called glycation, which basically damages the proteins [your blood vessels] are made of.” This, in turn, spells trouble for your brain. Lugavere breaks down how: “The brain is fed nutrients— glucose and oxygen—by 400 miles of estimated microvasculature, or little tiny arteries. Chronically elevated blood sugar damages those arteries,” he explains.
But wait, there’s more! According to the brain researcher, up to 40 percent of Alzheimer’s cases may be attributed to chronically elevated insulin levels, another not-so-sweet side effect of diets high in sugar. Giving foods with added sugar the boot will help keep your insulin hormones at a healthy level and improve your odds of warding off the disease.
3. Eat lots of mushrooms
Next time you’re making a #meatlessmonday meal, consider a brain-boosting portobello mushroom burger. Doctors and scientists have long been touting the powerful effects mushrooms have on those who eat them on the reg, and thanks to a recent study, we finally know why. “It turns out that mushrooms have the highest natural source of two extremely powerful antioxidants, ergothioneine and glutathione, both of which have been linked to longevity,” says Lugavere. The study shows a strong correlation between mushroom lovers and a reduced risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
When shopping at your local farmers’ market, Lugavere suggests choosing porcini mushrooms to get the biggest antioxidant bang for your buck. Alternatively, the white button variety is loaded with the good stuff, too.
4. Drizzle EVOO on everything
An easy way to ramp up the brain power of whatever you have on your plate is to add extra-virgin olive oil. “It’s been shown to have almost drug-like properties in terms of its benefits on the brain and body,” says Lugavere. For starters, EVOO is an anti-inflammatory, so it helps protect against illnesses like cancer and heart diseases. Lugavere points out that EVOO also encourages the body’s house-cleaning mechanism (called autophagy), which is important for long-term brain health.
5. Indulge in moderation
While Lugavere cautions against a diet rich in processed junk foods and bread, he’s hesitant to cut out full categories of foods—including the oft vilified carbs and grains. “I say if you want to eat rice or a sweet potato, eat it in a way that works for you,” he says. When it comes to all foods, Lugavere explains, the health benefits in relation to portioning looks like a bell curve. “Some is better than none, but that doesn’t mean that you should eat too much of it,” he explains. Even something super healthy, like cruciferous vegetables (kale, bok choy, Brussels sprouts), can cause health issues if consumed in excess, he points out.
6. Make room on your plate for meat
Unless you’re a super-strict vegetarian, consider adding red meat into your diet. “In terms of the brain, grass-fed organic red meat is a health food without question,” says Lugavere. “Meat is a huge continuum. And there’s really unhealthy meat and really healthy meat. But for the vast majority of our evolution, our ancestors would have never given up the opportunity to eat a nutrient dense piece of meat. In fact, researchers speculate it’s not just access to meat, but cooked meat that actually catalyzed the growth of our brains.”
While he does admit that most people tend to overdo it, Lugavere recommends a balanced diet that incorporates beef or collagen-filled chicken drumsticks two to three times a week. “There are nutrients in meat that make your brain work better,” he says. “Studies by UCLA found that red meat improved the cognitive function of children in the developing world.” Lugavere also cites research that says that women who add red meat to their diet were able to cut their risk for depression and anxiety disorder in half. Again, just keep that bell curve in mind when meal-planning.
While you’re boosting your brain function, add some nootropic supplements into your daily mix. And could Alzheimer’s be halted in its tracks in as little as 10 years from now? One team of researchers thinks so.