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A nutrition expert and chef shares 7 foods for a healthy brain and gut that are always on her grocery list

Gabby Landsverk   

A nutrition expert and chef shares 7 foods for a healthy brain and gut that are always on her grocery list
  • Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and professional chef.
  • She explains why eating well helps to fuel beneficial bacteria in the gut, supporting the brain.

You can eat your way to a younger brain and healthier gut by stocking up on some basic ingredients from your local grocery store, according to a doctor and nutrition expert.

Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and professional chef featured in a new brain health class from MasterClass, which offers simple tips to help improve memory and focus while preventing cognitive decline that comes with aging.

She told Business Insider that what you eat can significantly boost your brain health and mood while supporting your digestive system all at the same time.

That's because the brain and the gut are closely connected — so much so that the gut is a key producer of neurotransmitters like serotonin that we need to maintain mental health and cognitive function.

"People think of the brain as an above-the-neck concept that is unrelated to the rest of the body, but gut health is so critically important as well," Naidoo said.

The upshot of the brain-gut connection is that eating well is a double win for your health, and you don't need expensive superfoods or supplements to do it. Naidoo's favorite brain-boosting staples on her grocery list include yogurt, dark chocolate, and fresh herbs.

"The first and foremost thing I want people to really learn from this class is that healthy food can be delicious," she said. "All you need to do is add in very simple ingredients, easily accessible ingredients, whether it's leafy greens or herbs and spices."

Yogurt and cottage cheese are rich in protein and gut-friendly probiotics

Two of the major staples in Naidoo's fridge are plain yogurt and cottage cheese, known as probiotic foods. They're packed with beneficial bacteria from the fermentation process, which can help support the friendly microorganisms that live in the human digestive system. Both yogurt and cottage cheese are good protein sources to help you feel full, too.

The key to making yogurt or cottage cheese a healthy breakfast or snack is being mindful of what you mix in. A lot of premade products or additives like granola can be high in sugar, too much of which is linked to potential health issues, including higher risk of anxiety and depression.

Naidoo said she makes her own brain-food granola (the recipe is included in her book) with hearty oats, seeds as a source of healthy fats, and a bit of honey for natural sweetness.

Nuts and berries are full of fiber for a healthy snack

Popular snacks like chips and pasties are processed foods, which research has linked to worse mood and brain function.

Naidoo's go-to snacks instead include nuts and berries, which provide plenty of fiber to keep your digestive system healthy.

Berries are often recommended for brain health as part of eating plans like the MIND diet because they're packed with disease-fighting compounds called antioxidants.

"We want to eat antioxidants because these fend off oxidative stress in the body and the brain," Naidoo said.

Leafy greens may keep your brain younger

Another easy way to eat healthier is to add a few servings of leafy green veggies to your regular meals, Naidoo said.

Produce like spinach and kale contain high amounts of nutrients such as vitamin K and folate, and research suggests they're linked to healthier aging.

Also, look for microgreens like cress, arugula, and pea shoots. These are easy to mix into recipes like salads for extra vitamins and minerals.

"If I see microgreens, especially in the summer, I try to get some of those because that added to the top of my salad just is more nutrition for me," Naidoo said.

Dark chocolate is a brain-boosting dessert

Brain food can also include treats, according to Naidoo. Dark chocolate offers a wealth of minerals and a specific type of nutrient called flavanols, which are linked to cognitive benefits.

"Not only is it a brain-healthy food, it's low in sugar. So rather than a candy bar, I have my patients get used to eating small chunks of extra dark natural chocolate," Naidoo said.

For best results, avoid products with a lot of sugar or other additives and look for a high percentage (at least 70% cocoa) to get the most out of your chocolate. Enjoying chocolate in moderation is also key, since too much can cause you to overdo it on sugar and/or calories and offset the potential health benefits, research suggests.

Naidoo added that pairing chocolate with citrus, like an orange or clementine, can make it even more nutritious since vitamin C helps the body absorb iron.

Fresh herbs like basil and parsley add nutrients and make healthy food delicious

Naidoo's training as a professional chef has taught her that healthy food can be delicious but doesn't have to be complicated.

Stocking up on fresh herbs like basil and parsley can boost flavor and provide even more healthy benefits.

In the brain health class for MasterClass, Naidoo shares recipes for brain-healthy foods like jerk cauliflower that you can make at home. Over time, you can explore your favorite herbs and spices to find flavors and recipes that work for your tastes and support good health.

"The most important thing is that people understand how simple healthy food can be and that it is tasty, that they're not giving up flavor," Naidoo said.

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