I Study Cognitive Health & Longevity: What I Eat In A Day For A Youthful Brain
When it comes to supporting a youthful brain, what you eat plays a significant role. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Your brain is an organ, and fueling it with the nutrients it loves can help enhance its function over time. So why not load up on foods specifically known for better brain function?
Max Lugavere, a health and science journalist and New York Times bestselling author, is very familiar with the power of food for cognitive health; it's why he chose to dedicate his newest title, Genius Kitchen, specifically to brain-healthy recipes that keep your mind sharp. In it, you'll find over 100 recipes to cycle through—but if you're itching to know what Lugavere eats on a daily basis, he shares his personal menu on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
"I love to start my day out with a protein source," Lugavere says. Usually, that means some sort of egg scramble: He likes to whip up four or five whole eggs—sometimes adding extra egg whites to increase the protein density. "I actually think it's really useful to have whole eggs as well as pure egg whites," he notes. "Egg yolks are a cognitive multivitamin, so I'm a huge advocate of whole egg consumption." Specifically, eggs are rich in choline, the precursor chemical for acetylcholine, one of the most fundamental neurotransmitters.
Lugavere will also toss some veggies into the mix—usually frozen, if he's in a hurry. "I love to buy a bag of frozen spinach, and I'll just throw it in there frozen because it easily loosens from the bag into the pan."
On really busy days, Lugavere will even opt for a grass-fed beef patty on a bed of dark leafy greens (because who says your morning meal has to follow a traditional breakfast?). "It's a really easy and quick way to front-load your day with some nutrient density," he says, since grass-fed beef is rich in the protein creatine, which supports energy metabolism.
Lugavere is a big proponent of a daily salad, whether it's alongside dinner, lunch, or even as his first meal of the day.
The exact recipe varies—here are his general guidelines, if you're curious—but he always incorporates at least a cup of dark leafy greens. These greens (whether you use arugula, spinach, kale, etc.), have a high content of antioxidants, like lutein, beta-carotene, and alpha-tocopherol (aka, vitamin E), that are super brain-healthy. In fact, a study found that out of 960 participants, those who ate at least one serving of leafy green vegetables per day had brains that were operating 11 years younger than they actually were, compared to those who rarely ate those greens.
To top off his bowl of greens, Lugavere always includes a glug of olive oil. "Extra-virgin olive oil is, in my view, medicine for the brain," he says. "It's also a staple of the Mediterranean diet," which is commonly referred to as the best diet for brain health.
According to Lugavere (and plenty of other experts), a protein-filled snack is one of the best ways to overcome those dreaded midday hunger pangs. In terms of high-quality sources of protein, Lugavere is partial to a cup of Greek yogurt. "Greek yogurt is one of the most economical ways of getting a high-quality protein source in the modern supermarket," he shares. One 4-ounce serving of Greek yogurt contains 12 grams of protein, so you get a lot of bang for your buck."
“Full-fat dairy has a number of really cool nutrients in it, whether we're talking about vitamin K2, or butyrate, or CLA, I think there's a lot of good to be had in dairy, if you're not one of the many people who are dairy sensitive," Lugavere explains. Research has even shown that dairy has the potential to enhance cognitive function as you age, assuming you can tolerate it. As Lugavere adds, "If you're not dairy sensitive, I do think that it is a food worth welcoming back to the table."
In case you couldn't tell, Lugavere prefers a healthy balance of both plant and animal sources. "Plants to me are the ultimate biohackers," he explains. "They provide nutrients that are not always endogenous to our own biology because they come from a different operating system." That's why we call them phytonutrients. However, "I like to always balance my recommendations with a good nutrient-dense animal product," he says.
Specifically, he is a fan of grass-fed beef (which we alluded to above): "It is a cognitive superfood," he says. "It's a rich and highly bioavailable source of many nutrients we know are important for brain and mental health…zinc, vitamin B12, choline, creatine." That said, his dinners likely consist of some form of grass-fed meat with a hearty serving of vegetables on the side.
And according to Lugavere, we shouldn't forget about all of the brain-healthy herbs and spices: "Parsley and rosemary tend to be very concentrated sources of polyphenols," he notes. "That's why herbs tend to have very strong bitter flavors, due to these organic compounds that are beneficial to health." Take apigenin, for example, which has been shown to strengthen synaptic connections in the brain, or the way neurons communicate with one another.
As for spices, Lugavere is quick to praise turmeric. "Turmeric contains curcumin, which has an anti-inflammatory effect. It also provides a compound called aromatic-turmerone, which has been shown to boost neural stem cells,"* he says. "Generally, any chance you get to use spices in the kitchen, it's definitely an opportunity worth seizing."
The foods you eat can influence your brain function over time—good news is, a smattering of staples are known for their brain-enhancing properties. And if you follow a plant-based lifestyle, not to fret: There are a ton of vegan sources of protein to choose from.
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.