How does eating fruits and vegetables help promote brain health?

Colorful fruits and vegetables are loaded with essential vitamins and minerals, beneficial digestive enzymes and free radical-scavenging antioxidants that support the health of your entire body, including your brain and nervous system. Several studies have found that eating foods rich in antioxidants can significantly reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairment. For instance, blueberries have earned the nickname “brain berries” among neuroscientists, due to their rich antioxidant content. In one lab study, rats that ate blueberries were better able to develop their motor skills and also gained protection against strokes. Have you ever wondered where antioxidants get their health promoting qualities? I’ll tell you! Antioxidants are part of a plant’s defense mechanism and are produced in abundance -- along with other natural chemical compounds -- when a plant must fight to stay alive under the sun, or it is when threatened by hungry insect invaders. These survival-induced compounds are responsible for the plant’s color and flavor, along with its antioxidant and nutrient density. When we eat these foods, we ingest their cell-protective, survival properties -- which happen to taste delicious!

As a side note: This is precisely why I suggest that you choose organic fruits and vegetables instead of conventional. Organic foods have not been sprayed with synthetic, brain-harming pesticides and have been allowed to fully engage their defense mechanisms while growing. This means that they have developed their full flavor profile and likely contain amplified levels of antioxidants, as compared to conventional fruits and vegetables that were sprayed with harmful chemicals and didn’t have to fight to stay alive. Have you ever noticed how much better an organic apple, tomato or strawberry tastes? The difference in flavor may surprise you!

Fruits and Vegetables with High Antioxidant Levels:
  • Acai berries
  • Avocados
  • Beets
  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cherries
  • Cranberries
  • Kiwi
  • Oranges
  • Plums
  • Pomegranates
  • Raspberries
  • Red bell peppers
  • Red grapes
  • Strawberries
  • Spinach

Fruits and vegetables provide a two-in-one weapon against brain decline. First, they help with weight control: Low in calories and rich in nutrients, they fill you up and fight deficiency-fueled cravings. Second: They provide antioxidants and other key compounds that help protect the brain.

Research confirms that seniors who eat more vegetables experience significantly less age-related cognitive decline. Researchers at Rush University collected dietary data from 3,718 adults, ages 65 and older, and administered memory tests over the course of six years. It turned out that those adults who ate more than four servings (that’s 2 cups) of vegetables daily had a 38 percent lower rate of mental deterioration than those who ate less than one serving (half a cup) of vegetables per day.

These findings constitute yet more evidence of the protective power of produce, following on the heels of Harvard research which found that middle-aged women who ate the most leafy greens, cruciferous veggies or a combination of both boosted their odds of maintaining mental sharpness in later years. Specifically, the women who ate eight or more servings of vegetables per week, like spinach and broccoli, scored higher on cognitive tests than those who consumed just three servings. 

Blueberries might help you outsmart Alzheimer’s. In the first major study on the effect of fruits and vegetables in reversing neural cell damage, researchers at the Neuroscience Laboratory at Tufts University found that blueberry-supplemented animal subjects exhibited improved brain- and motor-function coordination. 

Fresh apples—the peel in particular—have some of the highest levels of quercetin (which is also found in onions, broccoli, kale, blueberries, cranberries and red grapes). Some of the most exciting studies of this flavonol suggest it may help fight Alzheimer’s disease by protecting brain cells against oxidative stress. In an animal study at Cornell University, quercetin proved more powerful than the antioxidant vitamin C in neutralizing the kind of neural damage done by free radicals. “Fresh apples have some of the highest levels of quercetin … and may be among the best food choices for fighting Alzheimer’s,” says study author and professor of Food Science and Technology, C.Y. Lee.

Other elements of a brain-healthy diet include nuts, seeds, fatty fish and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Samantha Heller, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Fruits and vegetables contain compounds that reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a normal physiological process that produces free radicals or oxidants. Oxidative stress becomes harmful when free-radical molecules outnumber the antioxidants and ultimately cause cell damage. Oxidative stress is implicated in the development and progression of brain aging, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is neurofibrillary tangles and β-amyloid plaques that build up in the brain.

Neurofibrillary tangles are abnormal tangles of fibers found inside brain cells. β-amyloid plaques are formed from protein fragments that accumulate between neurons in the brain. In a healthy brain, the protein fragments are broken down and eliminated. In a person with Alzheimer’s disease, they build up and turn into hardened plaques in brain tissue and interfere with the brain’s ability to function. Scientists believe that oxidative stress contributes to the formation of neurofi brillary tangles and amyloid plaques. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables helps keep a good supply of antioxidants available to neutralize free radicals, reduce oxidative stress, protect cells and support a healthy brain and may offer protection against dementia.
Get Smart: Samantha Heller's Nutrition Prescription for Boosting Brain Power and Optimizing Total Body Health

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.