Boost your brain power
JUST LIKE ALL the organs in the body, your brain needs fuel to perform at its best. Eating healthy food that powers your brain can prevent you feeling sluggish, improve concentration and help you maintain clarity and focus throughout the day. Those are the immediate benefits, but studies also show that what we eat now may help ward off diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in old age.
So, what does the brain need to stay as healthy as possible?
Cut back on saturated and trans fats. Studies have found those who eat a high intake of saturated fat have a greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia as they age. This may be due to the fat itself, or it may be a marker for a poorer diet that has less of the nutrients the brain needs. Other studies associated saturated and trans fats with worse memory and poorer brain function.
What it certainly means is that a diet of fatty meats and meat products, pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits and deep-fried foods – all high in saturated fat – are not good for the brain.
Eat more omega-3 fatty acids. People who eat a lot of fish have a lower risk of dementia. The reason is likely due to their higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish and seafood. These long-chain fats are found in concentrated amounts in the brain, so we know they are important for optimal brain function. They have been shown to reduce inflammation in the brain and promote the growth of new brain cells – just what we want for brain health and a sparky mind! You’ll find shorter-chain omega-3s in some plant foods, including chia, flaxseed and almonds, but we have only a limited capacity to use these to make the long-chain ones (called EPA and DHA) important for the brain. To boost your intake of these directly, tuck into oily fish such as salmon, tuna or sardines two or three times a week (yes, the canned ones count). You could also take a supplement, although these can’t replicate all of the advantages of a diet high in fish.
Make extra virgin olive oil a pantry staple. People who eat more monounsaturated fats score better on cognitive tests, while those that eat a Mediterraneanstyle diet have been shown to have a lower risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. There are many aspects of this diet that may be protective, including a high intake of fish, but the type of fat again plays a starring role. Extra virgin olive oil is primarily monounsaturated fat, but it’s also a rich source of several antioxidants and beneficial plant compounds. It truly is a super-food and seems to be a winner for brain health.
Improve your memory and stay sharp with these six simple diet changes, writes Dr Joanna McMillan.
It’s a myth that you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil. Make it your pantry staple for cooking and dressings. It even helps absorb more antioxidants from your veges.
Other good sources of monounsaturated fats include avocado (avocado oil is another terrific option for cooking and dressings), peanuts and many tree nuts, including almonds, cashews, macadamias, pecans and pistachios. Tuck into a handful of nuts daily for both heart and brain health.
Go for smart carbs. The brain is a glucose-greedy organ that will work best if there is a nice steady supply of glucose via the blood.
If you’re eating poor-quality foods full of added sugars and refined starch – think rice crackers, highly processed low-fibre cereals, white bread, banana bread, muffins, cakes, lollies, soft drinks, energy drinks, low-fat snack bars and white rice – and eating them regularly throughout the day, your blood glucose levels will be all over the shop! Immediately after eating, your blood glucose will be sky high, quickly followed by a trough an hour or so later. Your brain picks up this drop in blood glucose and sends you signals to eat again – the brain doesn’t like low blood glucose. So you enter that cycle of eating every couple of hours, relying on sugary or starchy foods to pick up your energy levels and concentration. That’s bad news for brain health, not to mention weight control and overall vitality.
Instead, go for what I call smart carbs. These are nutrientand fibre-rich, but also low-GI. This means they are digested and absorbed slowly, providing a steady stream to the brain. Smart carbs include wholegrain low-GI breads, muesli or oats, some high-fibre cereals, legumes, barley, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat (including soba noodles), wholegrain pasta, brown basmati rice and most fruits.
A plus for caffeine. While we usually think negatively about caffeine, it actually might be good for the brain! A couple of studies have linked coffee intake with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, while in the short-term, caffeine can improve concentration and cognitive performance. The trick is not to overdo it. A coffee right before an important presentation can be a good idea and you can safely enjoy three or four small coffees a day (just don’t add sugar or a flavoured syrup). Coffee also contains some antioxidants, which might explain some of the beneficial effects. Another fabulous drink is tea, especially green tea.
Load up on different coloured vegetables and fruit. This really is important. Plant foods are packed with what we call phytochemicals. These are compounds over and above the essential vitamins and minerals, and they have many beneficial effects, some of which we are only just discovering. There is no replacement for eating wholefoods and ensuring plant foods are a mainstay in your diet.
For brain health, they are anti-inflammatory and protective against cell damage. Be sure to include many different types. The recommended five veges and two fruit a day is a good start, but consider that your minimum, especially for veges.