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Make (Almost) Any Cookie or Treat Brain Healthy with These Tips by Annie Fenn, MD

Updated: Apr 23

Have you ever reduced the sugar called for in a cookie recipe and ended up with hockey pucks? Or swapped olive oil for butter in a cake that turns out, well, too oily? It’s not always easy or straightforward to adapt a recipe that relies on sugar for structure or butter for a tender crumb. That said, strategic ingredient swaps in the name of health will definitely make your food better for you. Plus, when done well, they add interesting textures and vibrant flavors. The goal is to avoid sacrificing flavor while increasing the healthfulness of the food.


It’s cookie season. I am here to help with a guide to brain-healthy ingredient swaps that boost your homemade treats with neuroprotective foods while enhancing flavor, texture and deliciousness. But first, let’s talk about why you would want to make your recipes “brain healthy” in the first place. For one, following a dietary pattern like the Mediterranean or MIND diet may slash your risk of getting dementia later in life by as much as half. And, chances are that eating this way helps you think better and feel more energized. 


 When you eat for better brain health, you are also reducing the risk of other chronic diseases, especially type 2 diabetes and heart disease (high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke); all are harbingers for poor brain health. Not only that, the MIND diet has recently been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer by 60%, delay the onset of Parkinson’s by 7 to 17 years and reduce open-angle glaucoma risk by 50%. In a recent case-control study, those who followed the MIND diet closely were 97% less likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder. 


Double chocolate and pistachio biscotti (recipe here). Learn which swaps can make this more brain-healthy by taking advantage of the offer below.


Before we head into the kitchen, it helps to review the key takeaways from proven brain-protective dietary patterns—Mediterranean, DASH, MIND, Green MED and others. All emphasize:

  • Plant foods over animal products

  • Unsaturated fats over saturated ones: mostly brain-friendly fats, rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids but low (less than 5%) in saturated fats and devoid of man-made or trans fats 

  • Whole foods over ultra-processed ones

  • Foods with a low glycemic index: low in natural sugars and devoid of added sugar

  • Meals with a low glycemic load: including a fiber-rich element to mitigate the rise in blood sugar after a meal

  • Foods rich in flavonoids


Understanding what makes a food brain healthy will inform all of your recipe tweaks. Below, you’ll find key strategies to swap in neuroprotective foods in sweets: cookies, bars, cakes and other treats. Next month, we’ll dive into savory cooking.


Five ways to make cookies and other sweets healthier

While there are no set rules for making successful substitutions, and it often requires some trial and error, here are a few guidelines to get you started:


1. Swap in brain-friendly fats: 

Brain-friendly fats give cookies and baked goods a satisfying texture while acting as a conduit to absorb other nutrients.

  • Oil for butter. Swap in olive, avocado or a nut oil for some of the butter called for in cookies and cakes. Full butter-to-oil swaps don’t always work, though, and they take time and a lot of adjustments. Start by swapping out ¼ of the butter for oil.

  • Tahini. Tahini is a sesame seed paste rich in omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats. Be sure to use a natural product without added sugars or oils, and stir well before measuring. Use it 1:1 for butter in cookie recipes like classic Toll House Chocolate Chip cookies. Or, use it in combination with olive oil for a full butter swap (see the Whole-Grain Chunky Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe in my book).

  • Pie dough. Olive oil adds a savory quality to the tart dough in my Lemony Chia Seed Blueberry Tart. In my Maple Oat Crust in my Apple Tahini Tart, olive oil replaces butter in the crust, and tahini cashew cream stands in for frangipane, an almond cream made with butter, sugar and eggs. 

  • Oil and butter combinations. When I made this Wild Blueberry Polenta Crisp with all olive oil, the crisp topping was too oily. The combination of butter and olive oil did the trick; it retains its buttery flavor and crispy texture.

  • Choose better butter. Sometimes, there is no substitute for using real butter in a cookie recipe. Butter from the milk of grass-fed cows provides more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional butter. 


2. Swap in a nutrient-dense, fiber-rich flour

Avoid all-purpose white flour whenever possible. Many whole wheat and wheat-free flours are nutrient-dense choices that also add nutty, grass-like or earthy flavors. A digital kitchen scale will give the best results when baking with alternative or gluten-free flours. Overpacking flour into a measuring cup is a common pitfall that makes baked goods turn out dry.

  • Nut flours. Almond, hazelnut, pecan and walnut flours boast fiber, protein and a good dose of vitamin E. Start by replacing half the white flour and go up from there. 

  • Oats. Swap in whole oats or oat flour for some of the flour in a recipe. Oats provide brain-healthy flavonoids and help reduce harmful blood cholesterol. For baking, use ¼ cup rolled oats (not steel cut, quick or instant) for each ¼ cup of white flour. Or, for more finely textured cookies, give whole oats a quick spin in a food processor or blender to make oat flour.

  • White whole wheat flour. Replace all-purpose white flour 1:1 with white wheat flour, a variety that provides more fiber. 

  • 100% whole wheat flour. Introduce 100% whole wheat flour for some of the white flour in most baking recipes. Start with replacing one-quarter of the white flour called for and work your way up. (For example, if a recipe calls for 2 cups white flour, use 1½ cups white flour and ½ cup whole wheat flour.) When cooking with whole wheat flour, slightly underbake for better texture.

  • Other nutrient-dense flours. Introduce buckwheat, spelt, teff, chickpea, quinoa and amaranth flours as you would whole wheat flour. Quinoa flour has an incredible popcorn-like aroma, and it's easy to make by toasting dry quinoa in a pan and pulverizing in a blender. Check it out in my Fudgy Quinoa Brownies.


3. Reduce sugar and swap in whole food forms

Fruits and vegetables that are naturally sweet, like apples, bananas, dates and pumpkin, can add fiber while reducing the need for sugar. 

  • Pumpkin puree. Swap half the oil called for in a recipe with the same amount of pumpkin puree from a can. 

  • Applesauce. Replace some or all of the sugar in some recipes, like in my Tahini-Swirled Brownie Bites, with applesauce. Be sure to choose a brand with no added sugars or flvaors.

  • Monk fruit sweetener. The pulverized flesh of this Asian fruit is a non-nutritive sweetener. While studies are limited, current data suggest monk fruit does not elicit a blood glucose response, giving it a much lower glycemic index than sugar. It’s best used in small amounts (see this Raspberry and Blueberry Clafoutis recipe for an idea) or mixed with water for a simple syrup to make spirit-free drinks. Look for monk fruit sweetener without erythritol. 

  • Stevia. Another non-nutritive sweetener, stevia also has sparse long-term safety data. The Food and Drug Administration has approved highly purified steviol glycoside extracts from stevia leaves as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Stevia can add an unpleasant aftertaste to foods, so I tend not to use it in my baking.

  • Halve the sugar. Most baked goods can tolerate cutting the amount of sugar in half. Coconut palm sugar, which has a richer flavor and a slightly lower glycemic index, is a good replacement for white sugar. Pure maple syrup and honey are other whole food forms of sugar to be used in small amounts.  


4. Add flavonoid-rich foods

Flavonoids are plant nutrients that protect the brain from age-related decline. Many key brain foods contain flavonoids, such as berries, chocolate, tea leaves, citrus fruits, leafy greens, olive oil, soy and cruciferous vegetables. In a study of more than 900 healthy adults who were followed for 4.5 years, those who ate more flavonoid-rich foods had between 38 and 50 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 


Foods rich in flavonoids can also give your meals a burst of color. Many of these nutrients come from the pigments in the skin or peel of fruits, such as berries, grapes and oranges. 

  • Dark chocolate. Choose a high cacao content for less sugar, a richer chocolate flavor and more brain-healthy flavonoids. If you usually use milk chocolate chips, for example, upgrade to semisweet, dark or bittersweet ones. Choose baking chocolate bars with a cacao content of more than 65%.

  • Matcha green tea. Matcha is a green tea powder made from ground-up leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. With a grassy, slightly bitter flavor, matcha pairs well with ginger, chocolate and nuts in cookie dough, cakes and puddings.

  • Dried fruit. All blue, red, purple and black berries are high in flavonoids. I especially like adding dried wild blueberries to recipes (like salads and oatmeal cookies); they provide 30% more flavonoids than regular blueberries.

  • Citrus zest. The peel of lemons and oranges provides kaempferol, one of the flavonoids studied for its link to reduced Alzheimer’s risk. If you get in the habit of always zesting your citrus (which can be stored in the freezer), you will have it on hand to add to your recipes.


5. Could it use a sprinkle of nuts or seeds?

Nuts and seeds add a good dose of brain-friendly fats while amping up flavor and texture. 

  • Hemp, sesame or pumpkin seeds pair well with oatmeal cookies, chocolate cookies, spice cookies, brownies and blondies. 

  • Stir chia seeds into berries for a quick homemade, no-sugar jam for filling Wild Blueberry and Peanut Butter Turtle Date candies and thumbprint cookies (look for this recipe in my newsletter this month). 


Try my newsletter subscribers’ most downloaded recipe for Fig and Almond Snack Bars (pictured above). See how many nuts, seeds and other flavonoid-rich foods you can sprinkle on top. 


Whatever the recipe—sweet or savory—keep the brain-healthy food groups in mind: berries, vegetables, leafy greens, fish and seafood, nuts and seeds, whole grains, poultry, beans and legumes, and extra-virgin olive oil. Choosing the least processed ingredients from these food groups is the best recipe for brain-healthy cooking.


Note: Try any of the recipes above and explore the Brain Health Kitchen’s other brain-healthy recipes by taking advantage of Annie’s generous offer of a free one-month subscription to the Brain Health Kitchen Newsletter (to redeem, click on Start Free Trial). The offer must be redeemed by Dec 31, 2023.


Or, get in on her Buy One, Give One offer and Scholarship program. Effective now through the end of December 2023, purchase an annual or Founding Member subscription, and she will give you an additional subscription to either give to the recipient of your choice or someone who has applied for her scholarship program. It’s a great way to spread brain health know-how with those you love. To redeem, follow the instructions in this newsletter


Annie Fenn, MD

Annie Fenn is a physician, chef, culinary instructor and the author of The Brain Health Kitchen: Preventing Alzheimer’s Through Food (Artisan 2023). She founded the Brain Health Kitchen Cooking School in 2015, the only school focused exclusively on preventing age-related cognitive decline. She teaches the Brain Health Kitchen method of cooking throughout the US and abroad at wellness destinations, medical schools and as part of her Brain Health Retreats in Italy, Costa Rica and Mexico. Dr. Fenn writes a twice-weekly newsletter about the latest dementia prevention research and shares recipes and guides for brain-healthy living. Her mission is to help you take care of your brain while still eating delicious food.

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