By eating the right foods, we can keep the brain healthy, help maintain memory function and ward off serious neurologi-cal diseases. And there’s no need for exotic recipes or hard-to-find herbs; the best brain foods are as near as your supermarket.

Research suggests that certain nutrients may be able not only to keep our minds sharp but also prevent the onset of dementia. For example, the vitamins folate, B6 and B12 are important factors in keeping the brain healthy, according to Sara Mahdavi, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist in Toronto. Tests have shown that levels of these vitamins tend to be lower in individuals who were later diagnosed with critical Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.

“If your blood is tested and the levels of folate, B6 and B12 are low,” she says, “you do an intervention by supplementing those vitamins as a preventative measure.”

Supplements are available on pharmacy shelves, Mahdavi says, but getting these vitamins from food sources, which may contain other health benefits, is better. Folate is found in leafy green vegetables; vitamin B6 is found in whole grains and in brewer’s yeast (so, beer, in moderation, is good for the brain); and the B12 vitamin is found only in animal products such as liver, shellfish, sardines, blue and Camembert cheeses, and eggs.

So, vegans and vegetarians whose diets don’t include animal products will lack B12 and will need to take a supplement. Mahdavi suggests yeast supplement, such as one sold under the Red Star brand. “I tell vegetarian clients who don’t want to eat meat,” she says, “that if they compromise and eat fish they’ll lead a long and healthy life.”

Fish and fish oils are excellent for the brain, adds Robin Anderson, a registered dietitian and owner of Revive Wellness Inc. in Edmonton. When fish oils get broken down in the body, they form docosahexaenoic (DHA) and docosapentaenoic (DPA) — fats that are beneficial to the brain and overall health.

All the cells in the body are enveloped by a fatty membrane called the “phospholipids layer.” The type of fat we eat determines the makeup of that layer. In people who eat a diet that’s high in fish oils, vegetable oils and saturated fats, the phospholipids layer tends to be more fluid and less likely to become damaged, says Anderson.

“Studies have shown that people who eat higher levels of fish, or higher levels of fish oils, tend to do better in terms of retaining memory and keeping memory function,” Anderson says.

Fatty fish is best. Salmon, sardines, tuna, halibut, Arctic char and anchovies all contain omega-3 fatty acids, which the brain needs. Also, nuts and seeds, including sunflower seeds, flaxseed and canola oil, are also good sources of omega-3.

To get the best results from flaxseed, use flaxseed powder or grind the seeds to release the nutrients, which are inside the seeds. Put two or three teaspoonfuls of flaxseed powder on cold or hot cereals. Eaten whole, flaxseed is a good source of fiber.

Some eggs are supplemented with omega-3, which is helpful but not as effective in nourishing the brain as the actual fish oil, says Anderson.

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and thus decrease the risk of dementia, says Mahdavi. “They also reduce inflammation in the body,” she adds, “which inadvertently affects the brain.”

Antioxidants are also necessary to promote brain health. Foods containing antioxidants appear to reduce oxidative stress created by free radicals that form in the body as a result of aging, smoking and environmental factors. Antioxidants bind to the free radicals and prevent the chemical reactions that are harmful to our bodies, says Mahdavi.

Foods that are darker in colour, such as blueberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and red, yellow, green and orange peppers are all good sources of antioxidants. “These foods seem to have a direct effect on oxidative stress, which can affect the function of the brain,” Mahdavi says. “So, getting antioxidants daily is a wonderful preventative measure.”

Anderson agrees, saying a diet that’s high in antioxidants — which includes a lot of fruit and vegetables — is good for the brain.

Water is essential, too. “Being dehydrated can affect the brain cells,” Anderson says. She suggests drinking six to eight glasses of water a day.

@page_break@When you’re not eating, keep the brain active. Do puzzles, learn to play a new instrument or learn a new language. And manage stress. “Stress can decrease memory,” Anderson says. IE