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6 ‘Bad’ Carbs That Are Actually Great for Your Brain

Carbohydrates have a bad reputation. The popularity of low-carb diets has led many people to limit them or cut out carbs altogether. But carbs are actually a great brain food, when you choose them correctly.

Carbohydrates provide the body with energy, which your brain needs to function properly, explains Dr. Augusto Miravelle, MD, neurologist and head of the Multiple Sclerosis Center in the Department of Neurological Sciences at RUSH University in Chicago.

The brain uses about 20 percent of the calories you consume, even though it’s only 2 percent of body weight, says Dr. Miravalle, explaining that the brain burns calories when you think, remember, learn and sleep.

The brain’s preferred energy source is glucose, he says. Glucose is a type of sugar that comes from the carbohydrates you eat and drink. According to the Cleveland Clinic, your blood carries glucose to your body’s cells for energy.

Although carbohydrates are important for brain function, including improving mental health and slowing cognitive decline, choosing healthy, complex carbohydrates is crucial, he explains. Carbohydrates should also be incorporated into a balanced diet that includes lean proteins and healthy fats, as well as plenty of exercise.

What types of carbohydrates are beneficial for brain health?

Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are the best carbs for your brain, according to Dr. Thomas Holland, MDphysician-scientist at RUSH University, who studies the impact of lifestyle changes on chronic diseases related to aging.

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These foods are considered complex carbohydrates because it takes the body longer to break them down, “so they make you feel fuller, and they are processed in a way that allows the proper nutrients to be extracted from them,” he said. -he declares. explain.

Whole grains can help raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol, adds Dr. Holland.

Although all fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, vitamins and brain-beneficial nutrients, the most colorful varieties have the greatest impact, according to Julie Stefanski, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Berries especially contain high levels of polyphenols, a plant compound that protects your cells from damage, she adds. Flavonoids, a type of polyphenol that gives berries their bright colors, may help improve memory.

Research shows that daily consumption of strawberries and blueberries delayed cognitive decline for up to 2.5 years.

Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are also high in fiber, which supports gut health, says Dr. Holland. A healthy gut microbiome can reduce inflammation in the brain and elsewhere in the body, reducing the risk of disease. Fiber has also been linked to a lower risk of dementia.

6 “bad” carbohydrates good for the brain

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Some may seem less healthy, but they’re actually quite good for your brain. Here is a list:

1. Whole grain bread

People often have the misconception that bread is unhealthy. And if they choose ultra-processed white bread, they are right. But whole-grain bread (as well as other whole-grain products) is a healthy source of complex carbohydrates that are good for your brain, says Dr. Holland.

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Whole grains are also high in fiber, which is good for the gut, brain and heart. Whole grains are also rich in B vitamins, which improve neurological functioning and maintain brain health.

2. Potatoes

Think of potatoes, and you probably picture French fries, buttered mashed potatoes, or potato chips, which you probably won’t find on a health food list. But potatoes are actually a “wonderful source of carbohydrates,” says Dr. Miravalle, when they’re not fried or slathered with butter or cheese.

Potatoes are rich in potassium, which can transmit nerve signals to your brain needed for learning and memory. Potassium also neutralizes sodium, which helps maintain electrolyte balance.

Eating the skin will also give you extra fiber, Stefanski says, adding that roasting potatoes with the skin on with olive oil and fresh herbs is one of the healthiest ways to prepare potatoes.

3. Enriched bread and cereals

Although whole grains are best, they may not be accessible to everyone, says Stefanski. Fortified bread or cereal can also be healthy carb options.

With bread, pasta, cereals and other fortified products, iron and B vitamins, such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid, are added after refining, according to the U.S. Department of Health. Agriculture. But these products may contain less fiber than whole grains, so be sure to check the label.

4. Nuts

Nuts tend to have a higher fat content, so you might be tempted to avoid them. But nuts are packed with fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients that are good for your brain and the rest of your body.

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Eating nuts, in particular, has been linked to better cognitive test scores, research shows. These nuts contain significant levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid, which is associated with lowering blood pressure and cleaning the arteries.

5. Dried fruits

Although they may seem like an overly sweet snack, dried fruit is a carbohydrate that offers some brain benefits. Although Stefanski says fresh fruit is usually a better option, dried fruit can be a good source of fiber and natural sugar.

Fiber can reduce the risk of heart disease and gastrointestinal problems, which is also good for your brain. Dried fruits also contain antioxidants that could potentially reduce your risk of degenerative brain disease. Eating dates, in particular, may protect against inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, research shows.

6. Natural sweeteners

Refined sugar can increase inflammation and is linked to faster cognitive decline, says Dr. Holland. Diets high in sugar have also been linked to mental health problems, such as depression.

But natural sweeteners like honey can have the opposite effect. Honey has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits that support overall health when replacing refined sugar in your diet. Research shows that consuming honey can improve your memory and protect your central nervous system.

Why Healthy Carbs Should Be Part of a Balanced Diet

For a better brain boost, include healthy carbohydrates in a balanced diet, says Dr. Holland. “You need good proteins, good fats and good carbohydrates. All of this allows for proper organ functionality, proper bone and muscle building, and proper brain function.

He recommends the DASH Mediterranean diet intervention for neurogenerative delay, or the MIND diet for brain health. It combines aspects of Mediterranean diets and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH).

The MIND diet emphasizes leafy greens and other types of vegetables, beans, berries, whole grains, fish, poultry and olive oil. The diet suggests limiting fried foods, sweets and red meat.

Avoiding ultra-processed foods is also good for brain health, says Stefanski. A 2022 study found that people who consumed more than 20% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods experienced a faster decline in cognitive and executive function compared to people who consumed fewer processed foods.

If you’re concerned about brain health but haven’t paid much attention to your diet, Dr. Holland says it’s never too late to make changes.

“I meet a lot of people in their 70s and 80s who are wondering, ‘Well, is this going to benefit me at this point in my life?’ “, he said. “Absolutely.”

Then discover the impact of chocolate on brain health.

Sources:

  • Augusto Miravelle, MD, neurologist and head of the Multiple Sclerosis Center in the Department of Neurological Sciences at RUSH University

  • Thomas Holland, MD, physician-scientist at RUSH University

  • Julie Stefanski, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

  • Assessment of the brain energy budget, PNAS

  • Blood Glucose (Sugar) Test, Cleveland Clinic

  • Foods Linked to Better Intelligence, Harvard Health Publishing

  • Dietary intake of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline, Annals of Neurology

  • A high-fiber diet may reduce dementia risk, Harvard Health Publishing

  • B vitamins and the brain: mechanisms, dose and effectiveness – review, nutrients

  • The Power of Potassium: Why You Need This Essential Mineral, Cleveland Clinic

  • Cereals, USDA MyPlate

  • Health Benefits of Eating Nuts and Nutrients

  • Is eating dried fruit healthy? Harvard Health Publications

  • Beneficial effects of date palm fruits on neurodegenerative diseases, Neural Regeneration Research

  • Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain Versus Food, Harvard Health Publishing

  • Honey on brain health: a promising brain stimulant, Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience

  • A comprehensive review of the effect of honey on human health and nutrients

  • Diet Review: MIND Diet, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health

  • Association between ultra-processed food consumption and cognitive decline, JAMA Neurology

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