How to grocery shop for better brain health

Grocery shopping can be surprisingly important when it comes to brain health.

Why so? The food we buy at the grocery store becomes the physical building blocks of our brain. It turns into neurotransmitters that affect mood and thoughts. It affects the gut-brain connection, inflammation, and many other pathways that are directly related to our brain health.

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Unfortunately, most of the products sold in grocery stores do our brain health no favors and may actually contribute to a higher risk of brain diseases such as depression and Alzheimer’s. That’s why anyone who wants to protect and improve their brain health should have a grocery shopping plan. Here are three of the most important considerations:

1. Prioritize key brain-boosting nutrients

Evidence suggests that certain foods and nutrients can have enormous value for our brain health (these are sometimes called “superfoods”). When it comes to the brain, some of the best research is around a few key nutrients and the foods that contain them in high amounts. These include phytonutrients (plant nutrients such as antioxidants), gut-healthy fiber, omega-3 fats, and key vitamins and minerals. Here’s your treasure map to pick some superstar foods packed with these nutrients.

  • Phytonutrients: These plant nutrients are linked to immune health, metabolic health and brain outcomes. They are widely distributed in fruits and vegetables, teas, coffee, spices and herbs. Look for colorful fruits and vegetables (blueberries are a great choice), try some new herbs and spices, and look for coffee and tea without added sugar.
  • Gut-friendly fiber: With the gut-brain connection now taking center stage in conversations about brain health, consider supporting your gut with unique sources of fiber, such as jicama, dandelion greens, onions, sunflowers, leeks, and garlic
  • Omega-3 fats: they are key to brain structure and function. They are found in chia seeds and nuts, but the most important ones are usually found in seafood. Try some wild salmon, anchovies, mackerel or herring.
  • Zinc, magnesium and B vitamins: These key vitamins and minerals are linked to brain health. Consider adding some seeds (pumpkin seeds are great) and nuts like walnuts or almonds to your cart to get a solid dose of these micronutrients. If you want to splurge, clams are also a great source.

2. Replace processed foods with whole food alternatives

The main source of calories consumed by Americans is grains. The most commonly consumed grains are wheat, corn, and rice, often in highly processed forms that remove key nutrients and quickly turn to sugar when digested. Add in the refined sugar mixed into most food items, and it’s easy to see that by weight, most of the products filling the grocery store aisles are loaded with processed ingredients that are linked to inflammation and poorer metabolic health—two key factors that can damage brain health.

The alternative to these highly modified products is what you’d expect: choose whole foods that have been minimally processed. This includes the full range of fruits and vegetables, poultry, fish, meat, nuts, seeds and spices, but with a few caveats.

First, it’s probably true that when it comes to brain health, almost any real fruit or vegetable will be a better choice than a “fruit snack” or flavored chips with a hint of real potatoes. With that said, there is considerable variability in the quality of whole grains. Ideally, choose organic produce, and if you do eat animal products, try to choose wild-caught fish, pasture-raised chicken, and grass-fed beef.

3. Don’t get distracted or fooled: Read food labels

Food and beverage manufacturers know little about human psychology. They use this knowledge to fine-tune marketing and branding messages that distract us from the junk they’re selling and get us to buy based on impulse or emotional connections (this is especially true for products aimed at children).

Another way these companies use brain science to get us to buy their products is with added sugars. Shocking research shows that around 70 percent of food and drinks in grocery stores have added sugar — an ingredient that’s been linked to all sorts of negative health effects and can directly compromise our brain health. Why is it there? To sell a product. Our brains love sugar, and we tend to get addicted to products that give us a decent dose of the sweet stuff, despite the long-term consequences.

If the drinks and foods in grocery stores are so well designed to distract us and hook us to brain-damaging junk, how do we fight back? The best solution is to read the fine print. Nutrition facts are mandatory for processed foods and drinks and will clearly state whether there is added sugar in a product. If there is, that’s a great reason to put it back on the shelf. Ingredient lists can be stricter, but if you see cane syrup, rice syrup, corn syrup, fructose, agave, or any type of sugar, consider eating it. More generally, prioritizing single-ingredient foods (like fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats) that don’t require ingredient lists is a great move for brain health.

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