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Whole foods over supplements for better brain health as we age

Eating whole, plant-based foods rather than taking individual supplements will go a long way to keeping our brain healthy as we age, a recent Australian study suggests.

Recent Australian research confirms a positive link between healthy dietary patterns and better brain health in older adults. (Source: CheBA)
Recent Australian research confirms a positive link between healthy dietary patterns and better brain health in older adults. (Source: CheBA)

The collaboration between University of New South Wales’ Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA), the Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration (DCRC) and the Nutrition and Dietetics Group at the University of Sydney, recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, confirms a positive link between healthy dietary patterns and better brain health in older adults.

Researchers reviewed six random controlled trials and 31 cohort studies to investigate the benefits of many different dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean, Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH), Mediterranean-DASH diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) and Anti-inflammatory diets. It also compared other healthy diet patterns with western style diets that contained processed foods but few healthy foods.  

Researchers say results of studies exploring the effects of single nutrients like vitamins or individual foods on brain health are inconsistent, and that looking at the whole diet is more beneficial.

Lead author and PhD student at the DCRC Sophie Xi Chen says the findings support positive links between dietary patterns which are plant-based, rich in poly and mono-unsaturated fatty acids and reduced consumption of processed foods with better brain health in older adults.  

“Within dietary patterns, the synergies and interactions between multiple nutrients and foods may play an important role to prevent or slow cognitive decline,” Ms Chen, who is also a clinical dietitian, says.

“The MIND dietary pattern, which is a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets and specifies eating particular amounts of brain-healthy foods such as green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and berries, has shown protective effects in the USA and this requires further investigation.”

Co-author and Co-director of the CHeBA Professor Henry Brodaty says the findings were significant.

“With dementia a global concern placing extraordinary financial and social burden on patients, carers, and health care systems, it is imperative we look more closely at modifiable environmental factors – including nutrition,” he says.

Co-author, Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and Senior Lecturer in Dietetics at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney Dr Fiona O’Leary says the research is “exciting”.

“Making our diets more plant-based by including more vegetables, nuts, legumes and fruits and using healthy oils, for example, extra virgin olive oil is a really great start,” she says.

“We all would benefit from a higher nutrient diet, but from whole foods not supplements.”  

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