Amy McCallister, RD
Owner, AM Nutrition Services
It is popular science and often in the news that eating a balanced diet helps to prevent chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer, but eating particular foods and nutrients can also help protect the control center of our bodies—our brain, while also enhancing its function and warding off mental disorders. Research has shown that there are several nutrients and nutrient combinations that may help all of us stay on top of our brain-game.
At Treasure House, the focus on nutrition is tremendous. The staff is 100 percent focused on promoting and offering an overall healthy, balanced, diet enhanced with foods that promote peak brain and cognitive function. Top studies show that the correct amount and type of omega-3 fatty acids provides many brain benefits, along with folic acid, other B vitamins, and high antioxidant-containing foods and spices. Read on if you are looking for that extra brain boost and the foods where you can find them.
Omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, in particular, are essential for good brain health and may help improve memory, particularly in healthy young adults. Seafood, algae and fatty fish, including salmon, bluefin tuna, sardines and herring, are some of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. You can substitute fish for meat a couple times each week to get a healthy dose. Grill, bake or broil fish for ultimate flavor and nutrition. Try salmon tacos with red cabbage slaw, snack on sardines or enjoy seared tuna on salad greens for dinner. If you don’t eat fish, discuss other food options and supplementation with your doctor or registered dietitian. You can also get omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, seaweed or microalgae supplements. Walnuts and chia seeds may also improve cognitive function. Snack on a handful of walnuts to satisfy midday hunger, add them to oatmeal or a salad for crunch or mix them into a vegetable stir-fry for extra protein. Chia seeds can also be added to oatmeal or that morning smoothie! Finally, a study out of Tufts University linked avocados, high in healthy unsaturated fats and omega 3’s, with better brain functioning in older adults. Study participants eating one avocado per day experienced a significant improvement in their problem-solving skills and working memory. Avocados are excellent sliced on salads, sandwiches and in wraps!
Though folate plays an important role in many aspects of body health, its functions in the brain are only beginning to be fully understood. Beyond its integral role in the proper formation of the nervous system during fetal development, folic acid’s importance has become evident in children and adolescents, as those suffering from metabolic abnormalities impacting folate transport have been diagnosed with a variety of developmental delays and cognitive deterioration, as well as behavioral and psychological problems. Adults who suffer from folate deficiency have been shown to have a higher risk of neuropsychiatric disorders, depression, and even epilepsy, and numerous studies have linked folic acid supplementation in the elderly to better control of homocysteine in the blood system, resulting in both reduced risk of heart problems and improvements of cognitive performance and memory and fending off Alzheimer’s disease and mood disorders. The top dietary sources include spinach, liver, yeast and leafy green vegetables. Other good dietary sources include breakfast cereals, cooked lentils, enriched pastas, dry-roasted sunflower seeds and eggs.
The B vitamins, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), and cobalamin (B12), also play an important role in brain health. They may help prevent dementia and boost the production of neurotransmitters – chemicals that deliver messages between neurons in the brain and body. Without a steady supply of these nutrients, which the body doesn’t store, we are at higher risk for cognitive decline, including memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Many foods are fortified with B vitamins, so deficiencies are rare. For most people, simply eating a well-rounded diet will provide sufficient B vitamins. The best sources are: Whole grains, fruits, vegetables (especially leafy greens) and beans/legumes. Plan to make that gorgeous salad with beans this week!
Vitamin B12, however, is found only in animal products. Therefore, vegans should take a supplement. Also, as you get older your intestines can lose their ability to absorb B12. Keep in mind that some medications, such as those for diabetes or reflux, can interfere with the absorption of B12.
Antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds that protect you from the harmful effects of free radicals. Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that damage cells and hasten their demise. Every cell in the body is affected by free radical or oxidative damage, but brain cells are particularly vulnerable. It is easy to see oxidative damage in action by cutting open an apple. In a short time, the apple turns brown. Oxygen in the air is causing oxidative damage visible to the eye. We know the trick of rubbing cut fruit with a little lemon juice keeps it from turning brown. While lemon juice won’t keep an apple fresh forever, it definitely slows down the spoiling process. Similarly, when we consume a continuous supply of antioxidants, we slow down the cellular aging process. By far, the top antioxidant foods are berries of all kinds, such as blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, and bilberries. Other fruits on this list include cherries, plums, apples, bananas, and grapes. Top vegetable sources of antioxidants are artichokes, olives, spinach, onions, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkin, and potatoes. Some of the world’s favorite foods and beverages also made the list — chocolate, coffee, tea, red wine, and beer. There are hundreds and perhaps even thousands of nutrients found in these foods that are responsible for their antioxidant properties. Some of the most familiar ones include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, manganese, glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, curcumin (turmeric), and polyphenols.
The bottom line is that our brain is a very hard-working organ. Many of these foods are not just good for the brain, they sustain a healthy heart and all parts of the body. Taking baby steps to include the omega-3’s, appropriate amount of folate and B vitamins, along with high antioxidant-yielding foods, can help ALL of us slow mental decline and help our brains reach peak cognitive function. See below for a super-brain smoothie—great for breakfast, a snack or an on-the-go lunch! Cheers to great brain health!
Super-Brain Power Smoothie
2 cups blueberries
1 cup pomegranate juice
1 T. chia seeds
1 ripe banana
½ half of an avocado (pitted)
1 cup ice
½ tsp. turmeric powder (optional)
Add all ingredients to a blender and pulse until combined and smooth. If the smoothie is too thick, add more juice. If the smoothie is too thin, add more ice.