Eating for your brain as you age

By Ngaire Hobbins APD

Dietitian specialising in ageing and brain health and author of Eat To Cheat Ageing and Eat To Cheat Dementia.


YOUR brain needs resources to do the myriad of tasks we ask of it each day and it needs ongoing protection from the wear and tear of everyday life.

Food provides both of those and as you age, your nutrition needs become different from those of younger adults so it’s worth knowing how to eat to help it out.

I am publishing a cook book (available in August) and will share a recipe or two with you when that is available.

In the meantime, I thought a bit of a rundown on the very basics about eating to help your brain might be worthwhile.

We all know that dementia statistics are widely discussed and cause understandable concern, but you must remember that the majority of people don’t develop dementia (10 per cent aged 65-years and over live with a diagnosis, so 90 per cent don’t!) – what you eat may well be part of the reason why.


Keeping the brain running:

You must fuel your brain because it is far, far more active and hungry than any other part of the body. As you age, the ability of your body to easily switch to alternate fuels seems to diminish, so while 30, 40 or 50-year-olds are unaffected by, or in fact quite likely benefit from fasting for a few days, it doesn’t seem as easy for the brain of someone aged more than 70-years to do.

The brain predominantly uses glucose to fuel everything it does – that comes from carbohydrate foods (sugars and starches) and from some stored supplies. But those stores don’t last beyond a day or so, less if you are unwell and not eating much. The brain, when faced with the possibility of inadequate fuel, takes charge and converts body muscle into glucose to keep it going. That is great for the brain, but losing muscle is not good: if you lose enough your immune system, ability to heal wounds and more, including your future capacity to fuel your brain can be affected.

In people who develop dementia, glucose use in the brain has been found to be reduced compared to people without dementia. There is something going on with fuel usage that is not completely clear from research at this stage.

We will know more in time. What is important to remember now is that you need to do all you can as you age to hold muscle loss at bay: some is inevitable with age, but too much can impact your body as well as your brain. You do that by reminding your muscles they are needed – doing physical activity – and by making sure you get enough protein foods.

To keep your brain fuelled, eat a variety of foods, but make sure there is protein food at every meal.


Protect your brain:

The brain has so much to do, it stands to reason that it needs extra protection and there are many ways food can help in that.

Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods are vital here: there are hundreds of different substances in foods that have antioxidant and/or anti-inflammatory actions. No one food or antioxidant can do it alone though. If you include as many different colours in your food at every meal as you can, you get maximum benefit. Mix up yellows, pinks, all the greens, reds, purple, white, brown, cream, orange and black. And add to that good oils – especially olive oil and omega 3 fats from seafood, nuts and seeds.

The Mediterranean diet we hear of often in health promotion contains all these vital elements. And eat food as close as possible to the way it came from the ground, the land or the water. The fewer changes foods have to endure before you eat them, the fewer changes can happen that might impact your health.


Keep your brain active and engaged in life:

Physical activity is as good for your body as it is for your brain – it helps it keep making new connections and helps it avoid cell damage. If you take up something new, whether that be a physical or a mental challenge, that is great for your brain too. And if any of those also involve sharing a meal, there is an extra opportunity to get some protein, colours and good oil in.

If you want to know more, look out for my books and have a look at my website at or the Facebook page at