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Nutrition
By Gina Shaw

How Adding Leafy Greens to Your Diet Could Help Your Brain

The evidence keeps piling up that leafy greens such as kale, arugula, spinach, and collard greens may help keep your brain sharp. A study published in Neurology in January 2018 found that eating at least one serving (half a cup cooked or one cup raw) of leafy green vegetables every day was associated with slower decline in brain function.

iStockphoto/Elenathewise

Greens Boost Brain Health

Researchers at Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston and Rush University in Chicago, led by Martha Clare Morris, ScD, analyzed data on 960 participants, aged 58 to 99, in the Memory and Aging Project who completed a food frequency questionnaire and had at least two cognitive assessments over five years.

They divided the group into fifths, or quintiles, based on their leafy green consumption. Those in the highest quintile—who ate about 1.3 servings per day—had significantly slower cognitive decline than those in the lowest quintile, who ate about 0.09 servings per day. In fact, in terms of the estimated effect of age on cognitive decline, lovers of leafy greens were the equivalent of 11 years younger than those who shunned the stuff.

These differences persisted when Dr. Morris and her colleagues controlled for other factors that might affect brain function, such as education, smoking, alcohol consumption, and participating in physical and mental activities.

Brain-boosting Nutrients

The researchers also identified nutrients in the foods people were eating—lutein, vitamin K, nitrate, folate, alpha-tocopherol, beta-carotene, and kaempferol—that were particularly dense in leafy green vegetables. These nutrients are also associated with cognitive health, says Dr. Morris.

Adding to the Evidence

The study's findings corroborate an existing body of research that suggests that leafy green vegetables contribute to brain health. A report published in 2015 in Alzheimer's and Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer's Association, suggested that those who adhere most closely to the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet could reduce their risk of Alzheimer's disease by as much as 53 percent. The diet, which was developed by Dr. Morris and her colleagues, emphasizes the consumption of leafy greens, whole grains, berries, fish, and beans.

In a systematic review published in 2014 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, the Mediterranean diet—also high in leafy greens—was associated with a reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. Just last year, a study published in Neurology found that people who ate a Mediterranean-like diet had significantly less brain atrophy (as measured by brain volume in imaging studies) as they aged.

Most of these studies were observational, which means they weren't randomized or designed to test specific interventions. "But the evidence is accumulating, and we also have even greater certainty about the benefits of these foods in other areas, such as heart health," says Nikolaos Scarmeas, MD, associate professor of neurology at Columbia University Medical Center and at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, who has published extensively on the relationship between diet and brain health. "So it may be prudent to follow such diets even with suggestive, rather than proven, evidence regarding their cognitive benefits."

Eat More Greens

"You are indeed what you eat in many ways," says James Galvin, MD, MPH, professor of integrated medical sciences and associate dean for clinical research at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University and founder of the Comprehensive Center for Brain Health. "Of course, it's hard to predict how a single individual will do. There are vegan marathon-running astrophysicists who develop Alzheimer's disease and Twinkie-eating couch potatoes who don't. But if you follow a diet that's high in leafy green vegetables, like the MIND or the Mediterranean diet, it's a no-lose situation. It may very well have great [health] value for you, and it certainly isn't going to hurt."


5 Ways to Eat More Leafy Greens

Getting your daily serving of leafy greens is easy, even if you're not a salad person.

  1. Use as wraps. Use romaine, collard, or Swiss chard leaves as wraps for your favorite sandwich fixings, such as shredded chicken or pulled pork.
  2. Toss in smoothies. Add a handful of spinach leaves into a blender full of fruit, ice, and yogurt.
  3. Mix in sauces. Blend chopped spinach or beet greens into your marinara sauce or add steamed kale to your Bolognese. And pesto doesn't always have to be made with basil; try using kale or spinach instead.
  4. Add to sautes. Cook rapini (broccoli rabe), Swiss chard, or spinach in a pan over high heat with plenty of olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes for a delicious side dish.
  5. Eat with eggs. Chop up some arugula or spinach and add it to an omelet or breakfast scramble.

Web Extra

Three recipes with leafy greens, developed by Linda Monastra, a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City.