You’ve probably heard that it’s important to take care of your heart and brain as you age – it’s a general piece of advice you hear from friends and family (and maybe even your doctor). Heart and brain-related conditions account for 3 of the top 6 leading causes of death for Americans each year, so chances are it impacts you or someone close to you. But the good news is that heart and brain health are something you can work toward improving in your everyday life – including what you eat for each meal! And what’s more, there are certain foods that pull double duty and help both at the same time.
Read on to learn about 10 foods that will help boost your heart and brain health, and tips for how to get even more benefits by combining these superfoods.
- Heart Benefit: Berries are rich in antioxidants. Studies show that eating them can reduce multiple risk factors for heart disease. The benefit may lie in compounds known as anthocyanins, flavonoids (which are antioxidants) that may decrease blood pressure and dilate blood vessels.
- Brain Benefit: Large studies show promise for berries and brain health – specifically slowing cognitive decline. Berries are high in flavonoids, especially anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that can cross the blood-brain barrier and possibly positively affect areas of the brain associated with learning and memory function.
Power Combo: Berries paired with chocolate, blended in a smoothie with leafy greens and flaxseeds, or as an oatmeal topping are just a few ways you can get extra benefits.
- Heart Benefit: A higher intake of leafy greens is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Leafy green vegetables are high in vitamin K and nitrates, which can help reduce blood pressure and improve arterial function.
- Brain Benefit: Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and collards are high in nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene, which research suggests may help slow cognitive decline.
Power Combo: A leafy green salad can be topped with flax seeds and walnuts for extra heart and brain benefits.
- Heart Benefit: Fatty fish contain generous amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, shown in studies to lower the risk of arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) and atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries) and decrease triglycerides. Choose varieties that are low in mercury, such as salmon, cod, canned light tuna, and pollack.
- Brain Benefit: Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, and tuna offer the omega-3s EPA and DHA to fuel the brain, the body’s fattiest organ. Some research suggests that DHA in particular may be a key for brain health in older people who are not cognitively impaired.
Power Combo: Pair with a salad with leafy greens, tomatoes and olive oil based dressing for extra credit.
- Heart Benefit: Oatmeal is high in soluble fiber, which can lower cholesterol. Oats also contain antioxidants, including avenanthramides. These compounds may help reduce blood pressure and provide other benefits.
- Brain Benefit: In order for us to be able to focus and concentrate, the brain relies on a steady stream of energy in the form of glucose. Oats are a great source because they’re low on the glycemic index—meaning it won’t cause a spike in your blood sugar as quickly as some other foods. They are broken down more slowly by the body so they can be a source of energy for hours, keeping you mentally alert throughout the day.
Power Combo: Berries, walnuts or even a sprinkle of dark chocolate can be great toppings for oatmeal.
- Heart Benefit: Flax seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids and high in fiber, so they offer benefits similar to those in fatty fish and oats.
- Brain Benefit: A top source of ALA, flaxseed is a good way for vegetarians and vegans to add healthy fats to their diet that will help support brain function. And preliminary research suggests that ALA may have a positive impact on Alzheimer’s disease.
Power Combo: Flaxseeds can easily be sprinkled onto oatmeal or incorporated into a berry smoothie with some leafy greens added.
- Heart Benefit: Broccoli can aid in heart health by helping to keep blood vessels strong and helping reduce cholesterol. The sulforaphane in broccoli is also an anti-inflammatory and may be able to prevent or reverse damage to blood vessel linings caused by chronic blood sugar problems.
- Brain Benefit: Sulforaphane may also protect the brain, according to some early research. Broccoli also offers vitamin K, important for healthy brain function. Researchers have found that broccoli is high in compounds called glucosinolates, which can slow the breakdown of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which we need for the central nervous system to perform and to keep our brains and our memories sharp.
Power Combo: Lightly toss raw broccoli in olive oil before popping into the oven and roasting for a tasty side dish.
- Heart Benefit: Olive oil is a good source of monounsaturated fats, which can help reduce both cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Olives themselves—both green and black—are another source of “good” fat. In a large study, people at high risk for heart disease who followed the Mediterranean diet (high in grains, fruits, vegetables) supplemented by nuts and at least four tablespoons a day of olive oil reduced their risk of heart attacks, strokes, and dying by 30%.
- Brain Benefit: Olive oil is made from olives, which provide health-helping polyphenols. Research suggests these polyphenols may lower risk for certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke.
Power Combo: Drizzle some olive oil on fresh tomatoes or use with vinegar to make a salad dressing.
- Heart Benefit: Tomatoes are high in heart-healthy potassium and a good source of the antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid that may help get rid of “bad” cholesterol, keep blood vessels open, and lower heart attack risk.
- Brain Benefit: There is evidence to suggest that lycopene could help protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells which occurs in the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s.
Power Combo: Tomatoes pair well with olive oil, and are great in salads with leafy greens
- Heart Benefit: Nuts are great sources of healthy fats and protein. Walnuts in particular are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries.
- Brain Benefit: Walnuts have been linked to improved cognitive performance in adults. In fact, in one study, adults eating higher amounts of walnuts had better cognitive test scores. The ALA that helps lower blood pressure also helps reduce the risk of stroke.
Power Combo: Try walnuts in your oatmeal or in a salad with broccoli or leafy greens.
- Heart Benefit: Before you go on a sweets binge, it’s important to note that dark chocolate should be made up 60% or more cocoa and of high quality to reap the benefits. But if it is, several studies have shown that it may benefit your heart, including a 2012 study that found that daily chocolate consumption could reduce nonfatal heart attacks and stroke in people at high risk for these problems. Dark chocolate contains flavonoids called polyphenols, which may help blood pressure, clotting, and inflammation.
- Brain Benefit: Multiple studies demonstrate that dark chocolate can boost brain power, including enhanced cognitive function, reduced risk of dementia, and improved performance on memory activities. The key may be epicatechin, a flavanol found in cocoa, tea, berries, and other fruits, that yields cognitive benefits, particularly involving memory tasks and executive function.
Power Combo: Try dark chocolate with some berries or walnuts for dessert and double the benefit.