Dark chocolate and coffee: how to eat and drink your way to a younger midlife brain

·4 min read
brain food
brain food

You already know that food affects your brain in the short term – just think about how much easier it is to concentrate after an afternoon snack, or how much tougher it gets after an entire packet of biscuits – but it’s easy to forget, amid the chaos of everyday life, that what you eat impacts your grey matter over the long term.

If you’re aiming to protect – or even de-age – your brain, starting in the kitchen is one of the best moves you can make. But you don’t need to completely overhaul your diet to benefit from better brain health – and the sooner you start, the more difference you can make. Here’s what helps.

Ditch processed food and drinks

The simplest fix for brain health is also the one likely to have the biggest impact on your waistline: moving away from processed food, processed meats, sweets and soft drinks is sensible for a number of reasons. A study published in March found that eating 25g of processed meat per day – about the equivalent of one rasher of bacon – was associated with a 44 per cent increased risk of dementia. The good news? Eating upwards of 50g of unprocessed red meat – beef or pork, for instance – had a protective effect. It’s not entirely clear that either relationship was causal – for instance, the study included kebabs and chicken nuggets in its definition of processed meats, and it’s possible eating a lot of these kinds of foods often goes alongside a lifestyle that’s unhealthy in other ways, so you needn’t wave goodbye to bacon sandwiches just yet.

Soft drinks are more clear-cut: a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that even in people without diabetes, above-normal blood sugar is associated with an increased risk of developing dementia, while more recent research suggests that even artificially sweetened drinks with minimal sugar can increase your risk. Water, on the other hand, is essential for clear thinking, with at least one study showing that it helps performance in concentration-intense tasks.

But keep your morning coffee

The good news? Coffee is still very much on the (drinks) menu. In a review of its risks and benefits, researchers found that it seems to boost thinking skills in the short term and protect the brain against decline over a longer period – with regular drinkers showing a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. These benefits seem to come from compounds called phenylindanes, which give coffee its bitter taste and might inhibit the production of neurodegenerative proteins. Around three cups a day seems to offer the best benefits, while the fact that phenylindanes are formed during roasting may mean that dark roasts are better.

Eat a Mediterranean diet and add dark greens daily

What about food? Well, the Mediterranean diet is a smart, simple option: research suggests that people who stick to it do well on cognitive tests, while also slowing the development of Alzheimer’s. The MIND diet, which combines the Mediterranean menu with foods aimed at improving heart health, performed similarly well in studies. Dark leafy greens should be a staple on your plate, with researchers finding that volunteers who ate at least a serving a day saw notably slower cognitive decline than a control group. Your simplest solution is to add spinach to breakfast, but kale salads and collared greens with dinner also do the trick. It’s also vital to eat other colours of veg for general health – but don’t abandon those leaves.

Boost omega-3 fats and complex carbs

Healthy fats are also crucial for long-term brain health. Fatty fish are one of the best options, boasting a blend of nutrients that include omega-3 fats, a range of B vitamins, iron and magnesium. If you don’t eat seafood, increase your intake of olive oil, almonds and avocados.

Berries are also key, and you should aim to eat a range. Blueberries, in particular, are rich in antioxidants, vitamin C and flavonoids that stimulate the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain – helping with memory, focus and long-term brain health. Finally, complex carbohydrates, including the kind found in wholegrains, legumes and sweet potatoes, are packed with brain-aiding nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – while also supporting a healthier body overall.

Dark chocolate is a sin-free treat

Finally, several studies have linked dark chocolate, which is also high in flavonoids, to improvements in working memory and better blood flow to the brain. Some studies suggest that it might enhance neuroplasticity, improving your brain’s capacity to learn as you age. Want to take up piano in your 50s? Keep the cocoa solids above 70 per cent.

The rules in brief, then? Eat unprocessed foods, preferably including red meat and oily fish a couple of times a week, and dark leafy greens every day. Load up on healthy fats, snack on blueberries and nuts, and keep your drinks to coffee, tea and water. It’s not a bad way to live – and it might just ensure you’re better able to enjoy your old age.

Read parts one and two in our series:

Read more books, watch less TV, and don’t eat after 8pm: How to anti-age a midlife brain

How exercise protects a midlife brain – and the best movements to keep your mind sharp

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