Published on April 12, 2019

Green up and keep your brain youngerGreen up and keep your brain young

Spinach won’t make your muscles bulge like Popeye’s biceps, but it is one of the leafy green vegetables that were linked to brain health in a multi-year study.

Eating a daily serving of green, leafy vegetables was associated with a greatly reduced rate of brain aging, according to the study, which was published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The 960 people in the study, who had an average age of 81 when the study began, were tested for memory and thinking skills. Those who had daily greens tested as if they were 11 years younger than those who rarely ate greens.

“This study is just one more reason why the older population and people of any age should incorporate more vegetables into their diets,” said Nicole Clark, a clinical dietician with Cape Cod Healthcare.

The study used volunteers who were already part of Rush University Medical Center’s Memory and Aging Project. They completed a “food frequency questionnaire,” which asked how often they ate half-cup servings of spinach, kale or collards and one-cup servings of lettuce or salad.

Those who ate the most (an average of 1.3 servings per day) showed a rate of brain decline that was equal to being 11 years younger in age, compared to those who ate the least (0.1 servings per day).

“Effective strategies to prevent dementia are critically needed,” said study author Martha Clare Morris, ScD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush, in a press release. “Adding a daily serving of green leafy vegetables to your diet may be a simple way to help promote brain health.”

Other Benefits

The study showed an association between leafy green vegetables and brain health, but did not prove a cause, said Morris. The study did control for a number of other factors, including smoking, high blood pressure, obesity and physical activity.

“Adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet is never a bad idea, whether it’s for brain health, heart health or general health,” said Clark. “Leafy greens have a lot of fiber, vitamins and minerals and are part of an overall healthy diet.”

In addition to the spinach, kale, collards and salad greens mentioned in the study, she recommends bok choy, escarole, endive, watercress and arugula for variety.

How to Prepare

Some of her favorite ways to serve greens include:

  • Sautee them in a little bit of olive oil with garlic
  • Add kale, escarole or spinach to a stew
  • Mix kale or bok choy into some stir fry
  • Add spinach or kale to omelets or scrambled eggs.

Include spinach, endive or other greens in a sandwich. “Arugula has a slightly spicier flavor and will give a different flavor to your sandwich,” Clark said.

These types of green leafy vegetables are more readily available in the markets than ever,” she said. “You can find some nice blends of bagged raw leafy greens.”

When using greens in a salad, be careful what type of dressing you choose.

“Making your own salad dressing is a good way to cut a lot of calories and a lot of sodium,” she said. “Whip up some olive oil and red wine vinegar, and add a little salt, pepper and garlic for an easy and healthy dressing.”

Creamier dressings, such as ranch or thousand island, are much higher in calories, but serving size is also an issue, she said. “We tend to use more than we probably should,” she said. “You could eat too many calories with a simple oil-based dressing, depending on how much you use.”

For more practical tips on using leafy greens, Clark recommends MyPlate.gov.