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Dietary Don'ts

You've been loading up on colorful berries, nibbling on nuts, and dining on salmon -- all good moves if your goal is better brain health. But what about foods that might raise your risk for mood or memory problems, especially as you get older? Find out which potentially problematic items should make fewer appearances on your plate (or disappear altogether).

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Margarine and Frosting

These foods, along with many packaged snack foods, are high in trans fats. You may know that trans fats aren’t good for your heart and blood vessels. Research has found that they may also wreak havoc on brain function. A study from the journal Neurology found that older adults who had the highest levels of elaidic acid (a common type of trans fat) in their blood were the most more likely to develop dementia. 

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While a single glass of wine or beer is unlikely to mess with your mind, alcohol directly affects the brain's communication pathways. The more you drink, the more difficult it may be to process new information or remember things. Alcohol may also make you feel confused or depressed.

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Soda and Other Sugary Drinks

If you want to keep your brain sharp as you age, steer clear of super-sweet drinks. Research has found that people who drink a lot of soda, sweet tea, and other sugary beverages are a lot more likely to have memory trouble. These drinks, which often have a type of sugar called fructose, might even cause certain parts of your brain to become smaller.

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Diet Sodas and Drinks With Artificial Sweeteners

If regular soft drinks are bad for you, then sugar-free ones are good, right?  Not so fast: Research finds that people who sip at least one diet soda a day are nearly three times as likely to have a stroke or develop dementia. Scientists think that artificial sweeteners may be the offending ingredient.

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French Fries and Other Fried Foods

People who eat a lot of fried, processed foods tend to fare worse on tests that measure their thinking skills. The likely reason: fried and fatty foods. These guilty pleasures cause inflammation, which can damage the blood vessels that supply the brain with blood and hurt the brain itself.

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These tasty treats are both fried and loaded with sugar, a bad combo when it comes to brain health. You get an inflammation double-whammy from the deep frying process and the excess sugar. Studies have linked high levels of sugar in the blood with dementia. Even worse: Most doughnuts contain trans fats, another ingredient your brain doesn’t need.

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White Bread and White Rice

Refined carbohydrates, even ones that don't taste super sweet, can spike your blood sugar. That's often followed by a crash, which can make you feel mentally foggy. Research shows that too many refined carbs may increase your risk of Alzheimer's disease, especially in certain people who are genetically predisposed to it. Go for whole-grain breads, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta when you eat carbs.

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Red Meat

It's high in saturated fat, which is bad for your heart as well as your brain. In fact, limiting red meat is a key tenet of the MIND Diet, a research-based eating program aimed at keeping your memory and thinking sharp. Want a protein source that's better for your brain? Fish, lean poultry, and beans are healthier options.

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Butter and Full-Fat Cheese

That creamy taste comes at a cost. These dairy products are full of saturated fat. Followers of the MIND diet avoid butter, cheese, and other full-fat dairy. When it comes to brain health, low-fat dairy is generally the healthier choice. You can get milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and other dairy foods in low-fat forms.

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Swordfish and Ahi Tuna

Most health experts are big fans of fish, but the kind they love is salmon and others that contain a healthy fat called omega-3 fatty acids. Swordfish, ahi tuna, and other big fish lose points because they tend to be high in mercury. That’s a neurotoxin -- meaning toxic to your brain -- that may lead to higher risk of memory loss and poorer thinking skills in older adults. 

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Bottled Dressings, Marinades, and Syrups

Read the ingredients on the label carefully. Many of these products have surprisingly large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup. That’s the same stuff that's in soda. It’s linked to a variety of health problems, including memory loss and a decline in brain performance. Try mixing up your own salad dressings instead.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 10/28/2020 Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 28, 2020

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American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "The MIND Diet."

Boston University The Brink: "Is Soda Bad for Your Brain? (And Is Diet Soda Worse?)"
Journal of Alzheimer's Disease: “A Cross-Sectional Study of Blood Ethylmercury Levels and Cognitive Decline Among Older Adults and the Elderly in the United States.” 
Alzheimer's &  Dementia: "Refined carbohydrate-rich diet is associated with long-term risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in apolipoprotein E ε4 allele carriers."

Harvard Healthbeat: "Foods linked to better brainpower." 
Harvard Heart Letter: "Confused About Carbs?" 
Neurology: "Serum elaidic acid concentration and risk of dementia."
Mayo Clinic: "How to Use Food to Help Your Body Fight Inflammation." 
Northwestern Medicine: "How Alcohol Impacts the Brain."

Journal of Nutritional Sciences: "Dietary patterns are associated with cognitive function in the REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) cohort."

Piedmont Healthcare: "How Trans Fat Affects Brain Function." 

Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 28, 2020

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.