Beans, Greens, and the Best Foods for the Brain

Bret S. Stetka, MD


July 07, 2015

In This Article

More Science (Plus a Major Revelation About Nuts)

Dr Ramsey then explained the specific health benefits of the major categories of brain foods, meaning those that are nutrient dense in ways that benefit the brain.

Seafood: Seafood is packed with brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats are also abundant in plants like chia and flax, but plant-based sources aren't as efficiently converted to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an important structural component of neuronal membranes. DHA also influences the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which can benefit people who have mood and anxiety disorders. Bivalves like mussels, oysters, and clams are the top source of vitamin B12 as well as zinc: Six oysters (only about 10 calories each) provide 240% of our recommended daily B12 intake and 500% of our recommended zinc intake! Seafood is also a leading dietary source of vitamin D (we don't get it all from the sun) as well as iodine and chromium. Although many people worry about mercury in fish, Dr Ramsey provided an easy way around the concern: Eat small fish like sardines, anchovies, and herring, which typically don't accumulate toxic levels.

Leafy greens: A great base for a brain-food diet, leafy greens are a good source of fiber, folate (derived from the word foliage), magnesium, and vitamin K. Perhaps surprising, kale, mustard greens, and bok choy provide the most absorbable form of calcium on the planet, more so than milk. Greens also provide flavanols and carotenoids that have beneficial epigenetic influences (eg, including upping hepatic toxin processing). One cup of kale provides 600% of daily vitamin K, 200% of vitamin A, and over 100% of vitamin C—all for only 33 calories. For those who are greens-phobic, Dr Ramsey ran through a list of preparation methods to make them more appetizing: sauté them with olive oil and garlic; put them in a smoothie; bake some kale chips.

Nuts: Nuts had a bad rap for a while because of their high fat content. But, as Dr Ramsey revealed, "There's great news here. We've overestimated the caloric content of nuts. Anytime you look at the calories in nuts, take off 25%." Nuts are packed with healthy monounsaturated fats. They help keep us full and also aid in absorbing fat-soluble nutrients. Nuts also provide fiber as well as minerals like manganese and selenium. A serving of 22 almonds (just 162 calories) contains 33% of our recommended vitamin E, plenty of protein, and minerals, including iron. One study[6] from 2013 found that the Mediterranean diet augmented with nuts is associated with significantly higher BDNF levels in patients with depression.

Legumes: Dr Ramsey is pro-meat, but he acknowledges that many people are eating far too much and the wrong types of meat, and that nuts and legumes are a great alternative source of protein and nutrients. Small red beans in particular are the top antioxidant-containing food, while just 1 cup of lentils contains 18 g of protein and 90% of the recommended daily folate intake. "It's a requirement in my practice that you get a slow cooker and an oyster shucker," said Dr Ramsey to laughs from the audience.


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