COMMENTARY

Beans, Greens, and the Best Foods for the Brain

Bret S. Stetka, MD

Disclosures

July 07, 2015

In This Article

The Best Foods for the Brain

So how does Dr Ramsey encourage his patients to eat healthier in the interest of mental health?

"You don't have to do some extensive food survey," he says. "I'll just say 'Hey, let's talk about food for a few minutes because it plays a big role in mental health.'" Dr Ramsey will ask his patients what they've had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner over the past few days; he'll sometimes even ask them to send him photos of their meals. If they're not necessarily abiding by the healthiest dietary pattern, he'll try to elicit brain-healthy foods that the patient does like and discuss working them into the patient's diet. A recent patient of his didn't realize that red peppers and eggs were so good for the brain; she loves them both.

"It's not our job to say, 'Eat vegan' or 'Eat paleo'; it's to partner with our patients based on where they are and help them select more nutrient-dense foods," says Dr Ramsey. "Look for allergies, aversions, and even ask about what their childhood dinner table was like—looking for how people eat food and where improvements can be made."

He also cautions to be on the lookout for too much beige: pizza, pasta, and rice. "Eat the rainbow," he says, given that bold, bright colors in nature tend to signify valuable vitamins and phytonutrients (the reds, purples, and greens in particular).

Dr Ramsey is currently co-developing a brain food manual to provide clinicians with key points about food groups and specific ingredients to help them talk to their patients. Part of the project entails developing a mathematical scale to rank the healthiest brain foods. The list is still in development. Despite all of the buzz around kale lately, however—including Dr Ramsey's successful book 50 Shades Of Kale—the trendy vegetable appears bested by a number of other vegetables, including mustard greens. In terms of meat and dairy, oysters, clams, and spleen will probably land near the top of the list. Spleen recipes aren't exactly filling the pages of Bon Appétit, but given the recent foodie resurgence in organ meat, it is starting to appear on menus. Incidentally, most animals when hunting go for the organs first because of their nutritional value.

"Just have your patients circle two or three foods that they like and have them put that on the fridge," Dr Ramsey recommends, after which he'll encourage patients to work these foods into their diet by swapping them for less healthy foods. A patient of his with a thing for white chocolate–covered pretzels—essentially nothing but refined carbohydrates—successfully transitioned to dark chocolate–covered almonds, two of the top brain foods. Almonds are a top source of vitamin E and have lots of monounsaturated fats, while dark chocolate (the higher percentage of cacao the better) is a major source of iron and flavanols. Another way to swap: "If somebody loves hamburgers," says Dr Ramsey, "how about suggesting beef and vegetable stew instead?"

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