If you find yourself struggling to recall a word, forgetting where you placed your keys, or losing your train of thought in a conversation, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 9 adults ages 45 or older report confusion or memory loss, which to some degree is considered a normal part of aging.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to protect our brains from future decline—and one of the most basic ways to do that is through diet. Did you know that your brain uses 20% to 30% of the calories you consume, making it the most energy-hungry organ in your body? That means everything you eat can make a difference in preserving (or deteriorating) your cognitive abilities. And if you don’t eat to truly feed your brain with healthy nutrients but opt instead for the junk food-filled SAD, or Standard American Diet, you may find yourself struggling with forgetfulness. To weed out some of the worst culprits, let’s look at 7 foods that contribute to memory problems so we can banish them from the menu.Your brain uses 20% to 30% of the calories you consume, making it the most energy-hungry organ in your body. That means everything you eat can make a difference in preserving (or deteriorating) your cognitive abilities. Click To Tweet
7 Foods that Contribute to Memory Problems
1. Vegetable oils
One of the hallmarks of the SAD diet is high levels of omega-6-rich foods—such as safflower, corn, sunflower, and canola oils—which are associated with memory issues. Consuming too many foods that are high in omega-6 can also cancel out the brain benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods like salmon, sardines, and walnuts.
The optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in a person’s diet is likely less than 4-to-1, but those on the SAD diet may have a ratio of 20-to-1 or higher! Studies have noted that a ratio skewed too high toward omega-6 intake can be associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. There are many healthier oils to choose instead, like macadamia, olive, and coconut.
2. Sodas and energy drinks
Americans looking for an energy boost on the go often reach for sodas and energy drinks, but they’re a terrible choice when it comes to protecting your memory. We’ve known for years that beverages loaded with sugar have been linked to diabetes, which is associated with a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and in 2017, further evidence linked abnormal insulin levels to cognitive decline. In fact, these go hand in hand to such a degree that some researchers have referred to Alzheimer’s as Type 3 diabetes.
We’ve also seen evidence linking diabetes to decreased blood flow in the brain (the #1 brain imaging predictor of future memory problems), as well as a smaller hippocampus, the region of the brain that impacts learning and memory. And so-called “lower-sugar” drinks aren’t the answer: Even mildly elevated blood sugar levels have been associated with problems like brain atrophy, memory loss, and dementia. There are plenty of other beverage options to choose from that boost your health instead of diminishing it.
3. White carbs
Ditching the refined types of carbs that are a staple of the SAD diet—think white bread, pasta, potatoes, and rice—is key for enhancing your brain’s health. These are categorized as high-glycemic foods because they lead to a quick spike in insulin and blood sugar levels (followed by a crash), potentially leading to insulin resistance. They also cause inflammation in the body, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
If that weren’t bad enough, these refined carbs are notoriously addictive because they raise serotonin levels, which gives you a feel-good effect—even as they negatively impact your brain. In fact, a scientific review that examined food and cognitive deficits cited a study that found a single high-glycemic meal can impair memory, and other studies showed that people who consumed more refined carbs and fats exhibited greater impairment on memory tasks. In a nutshell, treat these carbs like other addictive drugs and just say no!
4. Fried foods
Foods that come straight out of the deep-fryer also tend to fry the brain. Few people look at choices like French fries, fried chicken, and doughnuts as healthy options, but most are not aware of the damaging effects they can have on memory. It’s not too surprising, when you consider that deep-fried foods are usually soaked in the oils listed in #1 above—canola, vegetable, and sunflower oils are common choices for deep-frying, because they’re less expensive and can withstand high cooking temperatures. But a large study of more than 18,000 people found that participants with a diet high in fried foods (as well as processed meats) were associated with lower cognitive scores in memory and learning assessments.
5. Artificial sweeteners
We already know that consuming diet soda sabotages weight loss efforts, but studies have also found that consuming artificial sweeteners can affect memory, too. That’s because these chemical sweeteners (like saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame, found in brands like Sweet’N Low, Splenda, and Nutrasweet, respectively) can contribute to chronically high insulin levels, which increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. They also harm the brain in other ways by potentially elevating the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome—all of which have been linked to compromised cognitive function. If you are seeking a healthier alternative to sugar, try stevia or monk fruit instead.
6. Excessive alcohol
There aren’t too many logical arguments for imbibing alcohol, a known carcinogen that is linked to numerous cancers and other health problems, but drinking even a “moderate” amount can also fuzz your memory. Alcohol impacts the brain in various ways: lowering blood flow to the cerebellum (a part of the brain associated with thought coordination), while shrinking the part of the brain that’s critical for learning and memory as well as interfering with the development of new brain cells in this region. Over time, heavy drinking can even lead to alcohol-related brain damage, which presents with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease. One study at Johns Hopkins found that daily drinkers have smaller brains, while another study determined that, compared to non-drinkers and light drinkers, moderate and heavy drinkers had a 57% higher risk of dementia—and they developed it earlier, too.
7. Trans fats
We’ve already covered Frankensugars—now let’s tackle Frankenfats, or trans fats, as they’re known on labels. These synthetic fats occur in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and they should be completely eliminated from your diet in order to protect your brain. They are the fats most associated with memory problems, negatively affecting people of any age when consumed.
Despite dwindling over the last several years, trans fats have still been lurking in many processed foods, margarines, commercially prepared fried foods, and packaged baked goods, like doughnuts, crackers, and snack foods. Research has shown that high intake of trans fats is associated with nasty side effects, including reduced brain volume, cognitive decline, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. On a positive note, the World Health Organization has called for a worldwide ban on these insidious ingredients by 2023, so at least we can hope for a trans fat-free future for our next generations.
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