Beans, Greens, and the Best Foods for the Brain

Bret S. Stetka, MD


July 07, 2015

In This Article

The Mediterranean Diet and Rethinking Meat

A number of studies have linked the Mediterranean diet (high in fish oils, nuts, and grains and including maybe a little red wine) with advantageous effects on neurologic and mental health. Dr Deans cited recent work reporting that adults who followed the Mediterranean dietary pattern the closest over 4.4 years had a significantly reduced risk of developing depression (40%-60%).[4] Also, a 2014 meta-analysis[5] by Felice Jacka, PhD, of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues found that 47% of the randomized controlled trials included reported improved depression outcomes with dietary interventions, levels comparable to those of drug trials. These data are doubly promising given that dietary interventions are relatively low-risk.

When taken together, most of these dietary pattern studies, which have been conducted all over the world, consistently show that traditional, pre-processed diets are the healthiest, including for the brain. To that point, Dr Deans presented the case of a patient she had treated: a 37-year-old psychologist with a long history of treatment-resistant depression, severe allergies, and asthma. After being started on the paleo diet—a diet mimicking what our hominid ancestors would have eaten (eg, meat, nuts, berries) —not only did she lose 40 pounds, but her depression resolved without adjunct medications, and her allergy symptoms improved too.

Next, Dr Deans presented the second quiz question: Which two dietary patterns are associated with higher rates of anxiety during pregnancy?

Answer: Vegetarian and high-sugar diets. (More on these later.)

To elaborate, Dr Ramsey presented his simple rhyme for remembering a healthy brain-food diet: Seafood, greens, nuts, and beans (and some occasional dark chocolate). "We see it in clinical practice all the time: With a [healthier brain diet] people's focus improves," he said, "people's energy improves, their self-confidence improves, and their involvement in their own self-care improves."

Dr Ramsey also acknowledged that it's not as simple as telling someone to go eat kale and anchovies; clinicians should be helping patients incorporate these foods into their overall dietary patterns, including discussing how to prepare them in desirable ways. "People are often mainly eating for heart health; they're counting calories rather than nutrients and are avoiding red meat. These are all rules of avoidance that aren't actually helping put nutrients on a patient's plate," he commented.


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