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Diet after brain injury: Healthy body, healthy mind?

Diet after brain injury

Healthy body, healthy mind?

In this special feature, we look at some top tips for enjoying a healthy diet after brain injury, and examine ways you can plan and prepare healthy meals while living with the effects of the condition.

What is a good diet?

What makes a ‘good diet’ varies from person to person and depends on a number of factors such as your level of physical activity, your general health and how your brain injury affects you. Some studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, olive oil and fish may be beneficial after brain injury.

This is based on research suggesting it helps to maintain cognitive function as people age. It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids, as dehydration can cause tiredness, constipation and may worsen the effects of brain injury.

What foods can help?

The internet is full of adverts for ‘miracle foods’ that claim to reverse the effects of brain injury, but sadly there is little evidence to support these claims.

However, some foods promote general good health and may help manage the effects of brain injury. For example:

Choose whole grains

Such as wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice. They release energy more slowly, helping to maintain energy levels throughout the day – especially helpful for people experiencing fatigue.

Extra virgin olive oil

A relatively healthy source of fat and has been shown to have a range of health benefits, including a protective effect on memory function.

Omega-3

A type of fat commonly found in oily fish as well as some seeds and nuts, may help to keep the brain healthy. Studies have shown that a diet rich in omega-3 may help reduce cognitive decline.

Darker-coloured fruits and vegetables

Such as spinach, kale, blueberries and strawberries, contain high levels of nutrients that some studies indicate could have a beneficial effect on cognition.

Healthy food pyramid shows the different food groups to eat for a varied balanced diet

What foods should I avoid?

The following top tips can help you stay healthy after brain injury:

Keep your salt levels down

Salt is known to raise blood pressure and increase the risk of stroke. Many people with taste and smell problems add more salt than they should, so use alternatives such as lemon juice to boost flavour.

Avoid sugary food and drink

Sugar can lead to weight gain and other health problems and can cause a ‘sugar crash’, where energy levels drop – a particular problem for people experiencing fatigue.

Avoid caffeinated drinks

In addition to energy spikes, caffeine can have a negative effect for people who experience urinary symptoms after brain injury.

Limit your intake of processed and fatty foods

These foods often contain high amounts of salt and sugar, tend to have lower nutritional content, and may lead to weight gain.

Be cautious with supplements

While supplements may be necessary for some people, always speak to your doctor or dietitian before taking them as they could interfere with any medication you are taking.

A collection of berries

How do I plan and prepare meals?

The effects of brain injury can make shopping for and cooking food difficult, especially if memory or planning skills are affected. Here are some top tips:

Find and save simple recipes that you can regularly return to.

With a meal plan in place, you can add your ingredients to an online shopping order or make a list to take with you to prevent you from forgetting items when you get to the store.

If you experience fatigue, plan your shopping around the times when you generally feel more alert, and when the supermarket is less busy.

When cooking, make extra portions and freeze them in sealed containers. Label each  container with the contents and date it was prepared.

If you have problems with taste and smell, pay attention to use-by dates as you may find it difficult to know if food is unsafe to eat.

Avoid under-eating or over-eating by having meals at regular intervals – and don’t skip breakfast!

Check the label. Clearer labelling has made it easier for consumers to know what’s in their food. If you’re struggling to read or understand the labels, don’t be afraid to ask someone. You can always use your Brain Injury Identity Card to start the conversation.

If you experience a loss of appetite, set an alarm to tell you when it’s time to eat, and speak to a dietitian for advice on getting all the nutrients you need.

Finding the right diet for you

Dietary needs vary from person to person, so if you have any questions or need support, you can speak to:

Your GP, who will be able to provide general information and make any necessary referrals.

A registered dietitian, who can advise you and create a meal plan that works for you.

An occupational therapist, who can advise on aids and adaptations that help you to prepare and eat food.

Remember, a healthy diet is just one way to stay healthy. If possible, combine it with other healthy living techniques such as regular exercise, a good amount of sleep, and staying
hydrated.

You can download Headway’s Loss of taste and smell after brain injury factsheet from our Information library or using the link below. 

Or, if you’d like further information or to discuss any of the issues covered, please contact the Headway helpline on 0808 800 2244 or helpline@headway.org.uk.

 

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