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How Nutrition & Dining Affect Brain Health

Current research says a brain-healthy diet encourages blood flow to the brain, bringing in the right balance of nutrients to function well. But did you know that the act of dining—of socializing with others and building connections and community—can also contribute to better brain health? In fact, to be most effective, a brain-healthy diet should be combined with physical and mental activity and social interaction.

“Brain food” is real—and can lead to more brainpower

Like the heart, the brain needs the right balance of nutrients to function well. And while there are many different and nutritious diets out there, the MIND Diet is most often recommended for brain health. MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, and it’s associated with a significant decrease in the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. Studies have shown it can also slow brain aging by 7.5 years!

Overall, the MIND Diet and other brain-healthy diets recommend eating in moderation and sticking to high-fiber, low-fat foods rich in antioxidants to help combat diseases like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and cognitive impairment. These protective foods include leafy greens, whole grains, olive oil and dark-skinned fruits and vegetables—which have high levels of naturally occurring antioxidants. Cold-water fish like halibut, mackerel, salmon or tuna contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, while nuts like almonds, pecans and walnuts are a good source of vitamin E. Even the occasional glass of wine is recommended; studies have linked light to moderate alcohol consumption with a reduced risk of dementia and better cognitive performance.

And for things to avoid? These include foods many of us try to limit anyway: red meat, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast foods. Any saturated fats, processed foods high in carbohydrates, and additives are responsible for increased inflammation—which leads to joint pain and tissue damage—and poor cognitive performance at any age.

Incorporating brain-healthy superfoods into your diet

Fresh fruits and vegetables meet the high-fiber, low-fat, antioxidant-rich standards of the MIND Diet, and they should make up a large portion of what we consume each day. Try rethinking your plate to make produce the star instead of an animal protein, and choose in-season produce for maximum nutrients and the best flavor.

Some senior living communities also offer farm-to-table programs to bring delicious peak-season produce to their dining rooms. Belmont Village’s dining program supports community gardens for residents and also partners directly with local farmers to source the freshest ingredients possible and incorporate them into healthy, nutritionally balanced meals.

“Not only does it taste good and look good, but fresh farm-to-table produce means our residents are reaping greater nutritional benefits, which improves brain health,” explained Eric Lindholm, Vice President of Food Services. “Plus, a rotating selection of produce means we always have something new to discuss with our residents. When we introduce a new fruit or vegetable, we highlight the nutritional benefits, different cooking techniques, and how those cooking techniques change the ingredient’s flavor and nutritional value.”

Dining is a social activity, and it should stay that way as we age

Senior living communities typically offer daily meal service and dining options for residents. Not only is this practical, but sharing meals is a great way to build connections with others. Encouraging consistent socialization and participation in conversation can build cognitive reserve to improve the brain’s efficiency and flexibility for processing information. A 2019 study found adults over 65 who interacted with people beyond their usual social circle were more likely to have higher levels of physical activity and greater emotional well-being.

Outside the research world, senior communities have seen real-world success from building a dining program that emphasizes both nutrition and socialization. “When put together, social connection through shared meals and nutritious brain food from the Mediterranean and DASH Diets have tremendous benefits,” explains Beverly Sanborn, L.C.S.W., Gerontologist and Vice President of Program Development at Belmont Village. “In our communities and others, we’ve seen improvements in brain and overall health from taking a holistic, Whole Brain Fitness approach to dining and programs. We’re able to preserve the happiness, health and dignity of our aging population.”

Making adjustments to the dining experience as we age

Providing the right foods and environment aren’t the only factors in helping older adults maintain good eating habits, according to Nancy Graves, senior dining expert and associate professor at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, University of Houston. “Our abilities change as we age, and things that were once easy become more challenging—and potentially unpleasant—when mobility and movement are compromised. If any activity becomes too hard to perform, we naturally avoid it, and that goes for dining and socializing as well.”

To continue to see the benefits of socialization and a brain-healthy diet, home caretakers and senior communities must also regularly modify the environment to make it easier for older adults to engage, feel comfortable and take in the nutrients they need. A few recommended modifications can include:

  • Smaller plates: Large plates and portions are often overwhelming, while smaller plates make meals seem more appetizing.
  • Glassware: Use short, sturdy glasses that are easy to hold. Reduced mobility and vision, along with arthritis and tremors, make delicate glasses hard to use.
  • Silverware: Choose good-quality silverware that’s large enough for seniors to grip easily and maneuver.
  • Smaller sizes: Avoid or pre-cut meats and other large foods in advance of the meal to avoid embarrassment or unwanted attention at the table.
  • Furniture: Use chairs with arms and no castors. Make sure the table is sturdy; older adults will use the chair arms and table as support when getting up.

When combined, social interaction, physical and mental activity, and a healthy diet can help maintain brain health and improve cognitive function. For better brain health, incorporate these aspects into your home dining experience, or choose care communities with a multi-faceted dining plan. Belmont Village has worked closely with university partners, such as the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, to develop senior dining and nutrition programs. The resulting dining plan blends nutritious brain food—including farm-to-table ingredients—and restaurant-quality dining experiences to keep seniors healthy and engaged.

Want to learn more about the links between nutrition and brain health? Watch our webinar with Beverly Sanborn, Vice President of Programming, who will discuss the links between nutrition and Whole Brain Fitness.

View Our Webinar:
Whole Brain Fitness: A Road Map to Successful Aging on March 3