While the link between an unhealthy diet and an expanding waistline is obvious, the connection between food and brain health is harder to see but just as important, even essential.
It turns out people following heart-healthy diets also get significant brain health benefits. For example, a Mediterranean-style diet — heavy in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts — added 1.5 to 3.5 years of protection against the development of biomarkers for Alzheimer's disease in middle-aged adults, according to a 2018 study. Another science-based eating plan, DASH (short for dietary approaches to stop hypertension), lowers the risk of stroke by limiting red meat, sodium, sugar and added sweeteners.
"Supporting your brain health means focusing on foods that stimulate synaptic connections, sooth the central nervous system, enhance neurotransmitters and reduce inflammation," says Kelly M. Rubenstein, a registered dietitian with the UCI Health Weight Management Program.
These recipes created by Chef Jessica Van Roo, assistant director of Culinary Recreation & Experiential Programs at UC Irvine, are rich in essential ingredients that fortify both brain and body on our path to wellness.
Roasted Beet and Sweet Potato Salad with Spinach and Arugula
Serves 4 (Total cost: $11.73/$1.58 to $2.93 per serving)
Calories per serving: 334
This unique salad combines colorful root vegetables with dark, leafy greens to provide power-packed nutrients that will keep your brain firing at top capacity.
Beets are one of the best sources of vitamin B folate as well as betaine, a chemical compound used by the brain to form natural antidepressants. They also contain uridine, which stimulates the production of phosphytidylcholine, the building blocks of the brain's synaptic connections.
Last but not least, beets contain betalains — pigments found in plants that detoxify the body and reduce inflammation, which is at the root of many ailments, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Adding walnuts provides polyphenols, ALA omega-3 fat, magnesium and the amino acid arginine, which also decrease inflammation in the body.
- 1 medium beet
- ½ lb sweet potato, peeled and diced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 8 oz arugula spinach mix
- 3 oz blanched green beans
- ½ cup walnuts
- 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
- pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ tablespoon white-wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon honey
- ¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ⅛ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
- Vinaigrette: Combine ingredients in a jar, shake well to mix.
- Walnuts: In a skillet, combine walnuts, syrup and salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring often until walnuts are toasted and the syrup is caramelized, about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Salad: Preheat oven to 425 degrees, roast foil-wrapped beets for 1 hour or until tender. In a bowl, combine diced sweet potatoes, olive oil, brown sugar and salt, mix well and spread on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast for 30 minutes, stirring after 15 minutes. While sweet potatoes are roasting, peel cooled beets and dice the same size as sweet potatoes. When sweet potatoes are done, toss with beets, green beans and ⅓ of the dressing.
In serving bowls, spoon the mixture onto a bed of arugula and spinach, sprinkle with nuts, with the extra dressing on the side.
Quinoa Vegetable Paella
Serves 6 (Total cost $9.33/$2.33 per serving
Calories per serving: 384
Quinoa is that rare food that is both a complex carbohydrate and a complete protein, a mighty combo able to keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady. This helps to prevent blood sugar spikes that can make you feel irritable and unfocused. It’s now widely available in most grocery stores completely unprocessed and is gluten-free.
The kidney beans in this hearty dish contain folic acid (folate) and B12, two vitamins that appear to be beneficial in preventing central nervous system and mood disorders as well as dementia.
Add zucchini, which is full of potassium, B vitamins, dietary fiber and antioxidants. Potassium increases blood flow to the brain, which can help with brain fog and improve focus.
A key spice in this recipe is turmeric, which contains the chemical curcumin, shown in a number of studies to fight depression and reduce inflammation. Many people only eat turmeric when enjoying Indian food, but this spice can be added to chili, soups, stir-frys and rice. However, to get the full effects of turmeric, combine it with some healthy fats and add black pepper (which contains piperine), to increase its absorption in the bloodstream by 2000%.
- 2 teaspoons grapeseed oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1½ cups quinoa, rinsed
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 1 14-ounce can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 ¾ cups chicken or vegetable broth, more as needed
- 2 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced
- 1 cup fresh or frozen peas
- 1 jar marinated artichoke hearts, cut into quarters
- In a deep skillet, sauté onions and garlic with grapeseed oil, just until onions soften and begin to brown. Add peppers and cook another minute.
- Add quinoa to the skillet and cook 2 minutes.
- Stir in turmeric, paprika, salt, cumin, tomatoes, beans and broth then bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low, cooking for 15 minutes.
- Remove cover. If quinoa looks dry, add ¼ cup of broth. Then layer remaining vegetables on top of the quinoa, re-cover and cook 5 to 8 minutes or until quinoa is cooked through.
- Remove cover, let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff then serve.
Crispy Dark Chocolate Banana Rolls
Makes 8 (Total cost: $8.02/$1 per serving
Calories per serving: 352
Do you feel a nice mood boost whenever you sink your teeth into a bar of pure, unadulterated chocolate? It is not happenstance.
It's caused by a chemical called anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression. The name is a derivative of the Sanskrit word "bliss," and one of the great things about dark chocolate is that it not only leads the body to produce this compound, but also contains flavanols, which help produce nitric oxide, relaxing your blood vessels and improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure. Better blood flow protects the heart and improves brain cognition.
Another serious mood lifter is the banana, with its combination of vitamins A, B6 and C, not to mention fiber, tryptophan, potassium, phosphorous, protein and healthy carbohydrates.
The fructose in a banana, provides a quick boost as well as sustaining energy from the fiber. This also helps prevent a blood sugar spike and an ensuing drop in energy and mood. Carbohydrates also aid in the absorption of tryptophan in the brain and vitamin B6 helps convert the tryptophan into mood-lifting serotonin.
- 8 frozen phyllo pastry sheets, thawed
- Grapeseed oil or melted butter for brushing
- 4 medium bananas, cut in half vertically
- 8 tablespoons dark chocolate chips
- ½ cup dark chocolate chips
- 1 tablespoon cream
- Preheat oven to 350F. Line baking sheet with parchment and set aside.
- Fold one phyllo pastry sheet in half across the length, brushing lightly with oil or butter.
- Place one tablespoon of chocolate chips on the phyllo sheet about 1 inch in from the bottom. Top with a banana half.
- From the bottom of the sheet, fold phyllo over the banana and roll up once. Fold one side of the phyllo sheet then the other side to create a straight channel for rolling. Roll the pastry up into a packet.
- Place rolled phyllo on parchment-lined baking sheet, open end facing down.
- Repeat with remaining phyllo sheets.
- Bake 20 minutes or until golden brown.
- While rolls are baking, melt remaining ½ cup of chocolate chips and cream, using microwave or double boiler.
- Remove baking sheet from oven and allow rolls to cool a few minutes. Drizzle with chocolate cream mix and serve.