An expert's guide to brain-healthy cooking and eating

Megan Johnston
Foods that are good for your general health and wellbeing also tend to be good for your brain.
Foods that are good for your general health and wellbeing also tend to be good for your brain. Photo: Supplied

If there's one part of our body that's closely related to our sense of identity and wellbeing, it's our brain.

"Most people are aware that what we eat impacts our physical health but we [tend to] feel more connection to our brain health," says Sarah Gauci from Deakin University's Food and Mood Centre.

The associate research fellow has seen an increasing interest in brain health, not just from scientists and doctors, but among the wider population.

The trend is part of a broader interest in health, fuelled on by the emergence of COVID-related brain fog, Gauci believes.

"People are concerned about developing cognitive decline and dementia, and are interested to know more about how we can have control over the associated risk factors," she says.

The Mediterranean diet seems to have a positive outcome on our mental health regardless of weight loss.

Sarah Gauci, Deakin University

Pillars of health

Diet is one risk factor we do have some control over, Gauci says, and is central to a new awareness campaign by Dementia Australia called Eat.Play.Rest.

Eating for a healthy brain involves a varied diet, rich in antioxidants and healthy fats, alongside mental and physical activity, and finding the time to wind down and relax.

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"Brain-healthy lifestyles involve all the pillars of general health," Gauci says. "So that includes maintaining physical activity, but also cognitive activity ... and eating a variety of different foods, as well as maintaining your general wellbeing."

Munchable: The poached eggs at  Miss Ruben, Ripponlea, are pretty spot-on.

Poached eggs on sourdough with spinach and avocado is always a winner. Photo: Supplied

Good for the body, good for the brain

As a general rule, foods that are good for your general health are also good for your brain, Gauci says.

Incorporating a range of different ingredients is important but certain foods rich in flavonoids and polyphenols such as blueberries and green tea can benefit our brain directly by reducing inflammation.

"Flavonoids and polyphenols are found mainly in fruits and vegetables, particularly ones with bright colours," she says.

We can also protect our brains indirectly by maintaining our heart health.

"What we eat impacts our brain both directly through its impact on inflammation but also indirectly through numerous cardio-metabolic pathways," she says.

Essential vitamins and minerals such as omega-3 fats in oily fish will keep our brain fully functioning, too, and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline.

Gut health can influence mood and cognition via the gut-brain axis, which is the part of the nervous system linking our digestive system to the brain.

So it's important to eat a variety of ingredients to feed the microbiome in our digestive system, which also happens to help us enjoy our food and maintain interest in cooking.

***EMBARGOED FOR GOOD FOOD, FEBRUARY 19/19 ISSUE***
Danielle Alvarez recipe: Chickpea and tomato salad with coconut dressing.
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Danielle Alvarez's chickpea and tomato salad with coconut dressing. Photo: William Meppem

Foods to avoid

Anything that increases inflammation is best given a miss, Gauci says. That means ultra-processed foods such as fast-food and supermarket snacks or items with lots of additives or artificial ingredients.

We should also reduce red meat, sugary and salty foods in our diet, and those with lots of saturated fats such as butter and margarine.

Watching our alcohol intake is important, too. While small amounts of red wine may be beneficial, serving sizes in Australia tend to be on the too-large side.

Overall, the best bet is a diet with lots of whole foods and plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables. The Mediterranean diet is particularly beneficial thanks to the high level of healthy omega-3 and monosaturated fats found in olive oil, fish and nuts. 

***EMBARGOED FOR GOOD WEEKEND, JUNE 20/20 ISSUE***
Karen Martini: Roasted vegetable & lentil soup
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Karen Martini's roasted vegetable and lentil soup. Photo: William Meppem

Practical tips

Gauci suggests adding extra fruits and vegetables into your daily routine, and swapping packaged snack foods with berries or walnuts.

Try to eat more green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale (these tend to be rich in vitamins A, C, E, K and folate) and replace one serve of red meat with a weekly portion of oily fish such as salmon or tuna for some extra omega-3.

Frozen vegies are affordable and practical, as are legumes and beans such as canned chickpeas or lentils.

Changing your cooking oil or fat to olive oil is an easy swap, too. 

If you're looking for something sweet, dark chocolate is one of the better options as it is high in flavonoids, but as long as your diet is generally healthy the occasional treat probably won't be detrimental to your brain health.

Salmon with garlic, mushrooms and spinach.

Adam Liaw's salmon with garlic, mushrooms and spinach. Photo: William Meppem

Keep it real

It's also important not to be overly restrictive with your diet, Gauci says. And people should be aware that weight loss doesn't have to be the sole or main goal of healthy eating.

"The evidence is showing that … the Mediterranean diet seems to have a positive outcome on our mental health regardless of weight loss," she says.

Just don't expect to change your whole diet overnight or the process will become too daunting and overwhelming, Gauci says.

"Making small steps in the right direction can make it more achievable," she says.

Karen Martini's scrambled curried tofu with spinach and peas.

Karen Martini's scrambled curried tofu with spinach and peas. Photo: Karen Martini

A daily guide to brain-healthy eating

Sarah Gauci shares 24 hours of brain-friendly food.

BREAKFAST

  • Porridge with berries and nuts. Berries such as blueberries are high in polyphenols and flavonoids, the natural plant pigments that give berries their vibrant colour. Research shows these flavonoids contain high amounts of antioxidants that can help slow neuro-inflammation, which is associated with brain ageing. Oats are a good source of fibre, which is important for gut health and the gut-brain axis. Nuts such as walnuts are good sources of protein and are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. They can also reduce inflammation, which is important for brain health.
  • Poached eggs on wholegrain sourdough with spinach and avocado. Eggs are rich in B vitamins such as vitamin B12 and folate. B vitamins play a role in brain health as they can slow cognitive decline. Deficiencies in B vitamins have been associated with depression and dementia. Spinach is a leafy green vegetable rich in vitamin K, folate, and fibre – all brain-healthy nutrients.

LUNCH

  • Vegetable or legume soup such as minestrone. Legumes are a good source of fibre and folate, which have been related to cognitive health and mood.
  • Spiced chickpea salad with feta in wholemeal wrap. Research shows spices such as turmeric, which contains curcumin, reduce inflammation and have the potential to slow cognitive decline.

DINNER

  • Salmon with a roast vegetable and barley salad, with nuts for extra crunch. Salmon is an oily fish that contains a large amount of omega-3 fatty acids. These are healthy unsaturated fats. Omega-3 fats can protect heart health and may reduce inflammation in the brain. Some research suggests that higher consumption of fish is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment.
  • Roast tofu and eggplant bowl with brown rice and kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented cabbage dish. Fermented foods are related to improved gut health and brain health through the gut-brain axis.

SNACKS

  • Fruit, nuts and plain yoghurt.
  • Green tea is a good substitute for coffee or sweetened beverages. It's rich in polyphenols and can reduce inflammation.
Cha ca la vong (Vietnamese turmeric fish with dill and noodles) by Jess Nguyen
Greek salad by Conor Curran
PR pix supplied by @eatplayrestaustralia and Dementia Australia for Good Food story about brain health - single use with story
Contact Sarah McGlashan <sarah.m@ampr.com.au> for reuse permissions

Jess Nguyen's Vietnamese turmeric fish. Photo: Supplied

Brain-healthy recipes

Cha ca la vong (Vietnamese turmeric fish with dill and noodles)

A fresh, fragrant and flavour-packed dish from Jess Nguyen. 

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 fillets (500g) of rock ling, cut into 5cm pieces (substitute with another mild, firm white fish if rock ling is unavailable) 
  • 1 bunch of dill, roughly chopped into 8cm lengths
  • 1 bunch of spring onions, roughly chopped into 8cm lengths
  • 1 bunch of mint
  • 1 packet of rice vermicelli noodles
  • ½ cup of Vietnamese dipping sauce (available in most supermarkets or Asian grocers) 
  • ⅓ cup of roasted peanuts, roughly chopped

Marinade

  • 5cm piece of ginger, skin removed and roughly sliced
  • 5cm piece of galangal, skin removed and roughly sliced
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 piece of fresh turmeric or 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric
  • 2 tbsp of Greek yoghurt
  • 2 tsp of olive or vegetable oil
  • 2 sprigs of dill
  • 1 small stalk of spring onions
  • 2 tbsp of fish sauce
  • generous pinch of salt and pepper

METHOD

  1. Place all marinade ingredients into a food processor and blitz until smooth.
  2. Pour into a bowl with the fish pieces and mix so the fish is completely covered. Marinate in the fridge, covered for at least 1.5 hours.
  3. Boil a pot of water and cook the rice vermicelli noodles for a few minutes until soft. Drain into a colander under cold water to rinse out any excess starch and to prevent the noodles from cooking further.
  4. Heat a large pan with some olive oil and begin frying the fish pieces in batches, cooking for 2 minutes on each side on medium/high heat. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan otherwise the fish will steam versus fry. Transfer the fish to a plate once cooked and give the pan a quick clean before heating again.
  5. Add in a little bit of olive oil and then throw in the spring onions and dill, sauteing for 2 minutes until soft, then quickly add in the fish and allow to cook for another minute or two. Take off the heat.
  6. To assemble, divide the rice noodles into bowls, top with pieces of fish, dill, spring onions, fresh mint and peanuts, ladle over a few spoonfuls of sauce.

Serves 4-6

Greek salad

A fresh and colourful Greek-style salad from Conor Curran.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 Lebanese cucumber
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 200g feta
  • 20 kalamata olives, pitted
  • ½ red onion, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup white vinegar
  • ½ lemon, juiced
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 pinches sea salt
  • 3 cracks black pepper
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • handful dill leaves

METHOD

  1. To start making the dressing, place the red onion, white vinegar, lemon juice and sea salt in a bowl and mix together thoroughly. This will pickle the onion slightly and dial down the raw onion heat.
  2. Meanwhile, chop the cucumber and tomatoes and place into a large salad bowl. Add olives.
  3. To finish the onion dressing, add garlic, black pepper, dill leaves and olive oil. Pour over the salad bowl, tossing it through the cucumber mix.
  4. Add a block of feta on top of the salad and finish with a dusting of dried oregano.

Serves 2 as a made, 4 as a side

Recipes supplied via @eatplayrestaustralia and Dementia Australia.