As we age our bodies’ needs inexorably change, and the old adage “You are what you eat” becomes quite literal. If we eat bad food, we feel bad. If we eat good food, we feel good! It really is that simple, and this effect is as potent on the body as it is on the brain.
Confusion arises, however, when we’re not really sure where the line is between good and bad. There is so much conflicting information out there that it can be hard to separate fact from fiction, and the topic of health seems to have gone the way of religion and politics: One does not discuss it at the dinner table.
Since March is National Nutrition Month, we’ve enlisted the help of an expert to shed some light on the subject. Mary Schellhammer, assistant director of dining services at Judson Park, has been working to improve the health of Judson residents for over 13 years. Schellhammer’s role is different every single day, she says, but her main responsibility lies with advising individual residents on their nutritional needs. She’ll even accompany residents to the grocery store to help them conduct more health-minded shopping.
So we sat down with Schellhammer to find out how we can maintain the health of our brain as we age with a healthy diet.
Diet’s Impact on Brain Function
We’ve always been aware that what we eat affects our bodies, but we’re learning more and more about its surprising impact on brain function.
It turns out that a healthy gut determines the health of the rest of the body. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is famous for saying, “All disease begins in the gut.” If we don’t feed ourselves the right foods, the lining of our gut gets damaged, namely the stomach and large and small intestines, allowing food particles and bad bacteria to enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the rest of the body.
The brain is first and foremost among the victims, and an unhealthy diet can cause a wide array of brain dysfunction, including brain fog, memory loss, increased risk of dementia, and decreased memory capacity.
“Eating for memory is a newer concept in the field of health,” says Schellhammer, “but we already know a lot about it. The first rule is to eat a balanced diet with a variety of healthy, nutrient-dense foods.”
“Vegetables are crucial,” she says. “Getting adequate vegetables, especially leafy greens, helps improve memory.”
A Judson favorite during Schellhammer’s time has been blueberries.
“We love blueberries because they’ve been clearly documented to help brain function,” she says. “They’ve done studies with rats that had blueberries in their diet, and have seen that once they put rats back on a standard diet that doesn’t include blueberries, their memory declines.”
Berries and cherries have anthocyanins that help boost memory function and antioxidants that help prevent neurological breakdown.
“Our residents enjoy berries in a variety of ways,” says Schellhammer. “Fresh, frozen, or dried, residents can mix them in with yogurt or just enjoy a handful. A popular dessert in the dining area is our berry bowl, which includes strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. Residents are appreciative of a healthy dessert rather than something heavy.”
Schellhammer even has some favorite blueberry recipes she decided to share with us.
Blueberry Apple Mini Muffins
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup oats
- 2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- ½ cup milk
- 1 apple, peeled and cut into small cubes, approximately 1 cup
- 1 cup frozen blueberries
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line three mini muffin tins with baking cups or grease lightly.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, oats, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, butter and milk.
- Add wet ingredients into dry ingredients and combine. Stir in apple and blueberries.
- Spoon batter into muffin cups. Bake until tops are golden brown, 20-25 minutes.
Number of servings (yield): 36 mini muffins
Blueberry Muffin Smoothie
- 1 frozen banana
- 1/2 cup frozen blueberries
- 1 cup milk (or almond milk)
- 1/8 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 classic blueberry muffins
- Crumble 2 blueberry muffins into large crumbles. Smoosh some of the muffin crumbles into the bottom of 2 glasses. Set aside.
- Now add the banana, blueberries, milk, vanilla and cinnamon to a blender. Blend until smooth. Divide the smoothie between the 2 glasses. Top with remaining muffin crumbles…and of course, add in a fun straw.
Number of servings (yield): 2 smoothies
But blueberries aren’t the ONLY brain-healthy food out there. Here is a quick rundown of other brain-healthy foods to put on the shopping list:
- Avocados – help prevent blood clots in the brain (i.e. strokes)
- Beets – reduce inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain
- Bone broth – improves memory and heals the gut
- Broccoli – high levels of vitamin K are great for the brain
- Egg Yolks – increases happy hormone levels
- Green leafy vegetables – loaded with vitamins A and K, helping to prevent dementia
- Salmon – high in omega-3 fatty acids that improve brain function
- Turmeric – naturally anti-inflammatory
How Judson Incorporates These Foods Into Residents’ Diets
There are a variety of ways to incorporate these foods into your everyday diet. At Judson, residents have an option for a catch of the day every single day.
“Residents always have a choice of eating fish,” she says. “It’s important to give people the option and not force it on them. Seafood, algae and fatty fish, including salmon, tuna and herring, are some of the best sources for omega 3 fatty acids.”
Schellhammer is always trying to counsel residents on how to slowly improve what they’re eating. “Writing someone a menu plan is hard to follow,” she says. “Rather we provide little tips on how they can make small changes to impact their health, memory and focus.
Nuts are also being incorporated more and more into the menu at Judson Park, especially at breakfast.
“Nuts have been found to have a positive impact on your heart and your brain,” says Schellhammer. “Residents can mix them in with oatmeal and raisins to get an extra dose of heart-healthy protein in the morning.”
Nutrition’s impact on the brain cannot be overstated, and definitely cannot be covered in one blog post. At Judson our residents have the resource of a registered dietitian to help them make healthy choices as they age. But just remember: Making healthy food choices is important no matter what age you are.