For a Healthier Brain, Eat More Greens
A recent scientific study found that seniors who ate leafy greens every day scored as much as a decade younger on cognitive health tests than people who habitually skipped their green veggies. Nearly 1,000 adults between the ages of 58-99 participated in the study and Rush Medical College researchers adjusted the data to account for age, education, health habits, sex and other factors that might affect cognitive health.
The results are welcome news for many of us, because the authors of the report say that as little as one daily serving of greens could have a positive impact on staying mentally sharp, regardless of your age. That means a cup of raw greens or half a cup of cooked greens could be an inexpensive way to protect your memory and mental agility.
Eating Your Greens
To learn more about how greens may help our brains stay healthy — and to get appetizing ideas for serving greens to seniors with limited appetites or particular palates — we got in touch with Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
First, what’s in leafy greens like collard greens, kale and spinach that makes them so healthy? “Leafy greens provide an array of nutrients such as vitamins E and K, beta carotene, folate and lutein,” Sheth wrote. “These nutrients play an important role in brain health and cognition.”
That doesn’t mean researchers have figured out yet exactly how nutrient-rich greens boost brain health, she added. “The study mentioned here shows a strong association of higher intake of leafy greens to improved cognitive health but is not a causation.”
Still, the Rush study is not the only one to correlate a diet rich in greens with better brain health for older adults. “There have been other studies that have also shown a similar positive effect of enjoying leafy greens in the diet.” For example, “the MIND diet protocol includes dark leafy greens.”
The MIND diet is widely recognized as a healthy way of eating for reduced dementia risk. MIND was created by the same researcher who led the Rush study on seniors and leafy greens, Martha Clare Morris. MIND combines Mediterranean and DASH diet practices for an eating plan that’s heavy on greens as well as “other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine,” according to US News and World Report. The magazine ranks the MIND diet among the best and easiest-to-follow diets for good health.
All this evidence raises the question, if one bowl of cooked greens or salad per day is good for brain health, is more better? “Possibly,” Sheth wrote, but balance is key. “It’s important to enjoy a variety of veggies including leafy greens on a daily basis for good health.”
Ways to Add Greens to Your Family’s Diet
Knowing greens are good for you is one thing. Changing your diet to include more of them — and getting reluctant eaters to actually consume them — is another. Sheth suggested several options you can try, besides the obvious choice of fresh salads. “Throwing greens into pasta, stews, soups, and casseroles is another easy way of bumping up your greens intake. You can also add them to smoothies, or make spreads and dips with leafy greens.”
For green twists on traditional recipes from cuisines around the world, you can explore Shape magazine’s collection that includes arugula hummus and broccoli rabe pizza. Self, meanwhile, serves up 50 recipes that use kale, in case you’re running out of ways to prepare the popular green. Healthline also offers a week’s worth of meal ideas that follow MIND diet principles, such as:
- Apple slices, peanut butter and spinach frittata, for breakfast
- Baked trout, black-eyed peas and collard greens for lunch
- Chicken, brown rice and vegetable stir-fry for dinner
You can also work greens into your family’s snacking habits. “Kale chips are another fun way to try kale.” Feeling adventurous? “Using dark leafy greens such as collard greens in place of a tortilla for wraps might be another interesting way” to get your family to up their greens intake. If you’re having trouble finding fresh greens at your local farmer’s markets or supermarkets, try a community-supported agriculture program or even neighbors who garden and may have a surplus to share during the summer.
Finally, Sheth wrote, “it’s important to remember that many factors can affect healthy aging.” Other dementia-slowing healthy habits to consider include regular physical activity like dancing, lifelong learning and getting treatment for sleep apnea.