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Foods That Can Negatively Affect Your Brain — and Healthier Swaps

Experts say reaching for healthy foods and cutting down on others can slow brain aging by 7.5 years. Ready to eat smarter? Here’s how to fill your plate.

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How to Feed Your Brain

The brain gobbles up more energy than any other organ — a whopping 20 percent of the body’s total burn. How and what we choose to fuel it with can significantly impact its health and performance. Neurologists and dietitians alike encourage us to make those choices carefully.

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Healthy Food for a Healthy Life

“Delicious food is meant to be enjoyed and has a deep place in all of our stories, including family, history, culture and fun. I love all types of food and look forward to trying new things and improving my cooking skills,” says Dr. Vijay Ramanan, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “But living a fulfilling and purposeful life is only helped by staying mentally and physically healthy, so I try to be mindful that even good things are best enjoyed in moderation.”

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Set Realistic Goals for Better Brain Health

The good news: “’Balance’ may be the key word,” Dr. Ramanan says. “A healthy diet that promotes brain health does not have to feel like a burden, nor is there a single ‘super ingredient’ that improves cognition or a single food item that causes dementia. A more realistic goal might be to start with 3-4 positive steps to incorporate most of the time over a period of months, and build on that. Just as starting an exercise program can be hard at first, if approached with positivity and commitment, before you know it the workouts become events to look forward to, and the benefits on health and broader quality of life can flow from there.”

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Avoid Larger Fish With Higher Mercury Levels

Mercury is toxic to our nerve cells, and we’re most commonly exposed to it when we eat fish and shellfish that have high levels of mercury in their bodies. According to a 2012 scientific study, mercury causes changes to our central nervous system that can result in everything from irritability and behavioral changes to cognitive loss and even death. Large, predatory deep-ocean fish (such as king mackerel, swordfish, shark and bigeye tuna) have the highest levels of mercury, and the EPA and FDA recommend avoiding them. Happily, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Small, oily ones — think anchovies, herring, and sardines — have far lower mercury levels. Even better, they’re high in the omega-3 fatty acids that form the building blocks of our brains and may protect them as we age.

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