Power your brain with food

Author: Linda DiBella

When we think about our diets, we usually think of them in terms of cardiovascular health, strong bones and muscles, our energy levels, and our overall weight.  But what about brain fitness?  Wouldn’t it make sense that if a healthy diet can enhance and strengthen how we perform physically, that it would also improve the function of our brains?   Indeed, a healthy, balanced diet makes all the difference for clear thinking, the ability to focus, a sharp memory, and positive moods.   And by eating certain foods regularly (and avoiding some others), we can increase or maintain our brain power.    Here are some tips on what to feed our brains and why:

Complex, Slow-release Carbohydrates

Our brains use 30% of the calories we consume daily, which is high, considering that they only account for ~2% of our overall body weight. Glucose is the main sugar/energy source for our brains, but for it to most effectively support brain function, it must be released slowly and steadily into the bloodstream to provide a constant and even supply of fuel.  Dips and surges in blood sugar that occur on high sugar and processed food diets actually hinder brain function and can lead to brain fog, a lack of focus, poor memory and mood swings.

Beginning the day with a balanced meal that includes some complex carbohydrates is essential because it’s been many hours since we’ve eaten dinner the night before.  Some good choices include whole grains like steel cut oats, quinoa, millet, and buckwheat, sprouted grains breads, beans and legumes.

Protein

Our bodies are composed of ~17% protein by weight.  Aside from water and fat, protein is one of our body’s main constituents.  In fact, our genes are templates for proteins and when we talk about epigenetics, we’re talking about regulating if, when, and to what extent a gene produces a protein.  In order to “express” proteins, we need amino acids, which are the building blocks and because our bodies don’t store amino acids like they store sugar or fat, we must consume them in the form of proteins from vegetables, legumes, grains, and animal products.

In addition, amino acids are the starting materials for neurotransmitters that function in the brain to keep our moods steady, help us feel alert, energized and upbeat, and regulate our stress levels.   For example, the amino acid tryptophan is the starting material for the anti-depressant neurotransmitter serotonin, which, by the way, plays a huge role in the gut.  The amino acid tyrosine is required to make dopamine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline and the amino acid GABA is itself a neurotransmitter that acts as a natural tranquilizer.   Therefore, sufficient protein in the diet that includes all the amino acids is essential to a clear, happy, and relaxed brain.

Proteins from animal sources provide all the essential amino acids (those that can only be gotten from the diet) and a combination of plant based protein sources will satisfy these requirements as well.  In addition, quinoa, a seed that cooks like a grain, has all the essential amino acids.

Fats

Our brains are ~60% fat and 25% cholesterol (which is not a fat but an alcohol).  I mention cholesterol because it is necessary for the production of serotonin.  One of the most important fats that functions in the brain is omega-3.  A high ratio of omega-3 fatty acids versus inflammatory omega-6s has been correlated with less depression while the reverse scenario is linked to bad moods.   One reason is that omega-3 fatty acids act as inhibitors of the enzymes that break down the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

The omega-3s that work in our brains are the long chain fatty acids EPA and DHA.  By far, the best sources for EPA and DHA are fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, and anchovies.  The shorter chain fatty acid ALA, found in walnuts and flax seeds must be converted into EPA or DHA.  In our bodies, this process is very inefficient and becomes even less so with age.  Therefore, if you’re not eating fatty fish on a regular basis, its best to take a fish oil supplement.  There are also algae-based sources of EPA and DHA for vegans.

Saturated fat is also essential for brain function; it actually supports omega-3 fats and lowers levels of the inflammatory omega-6 fat arachidonic acid.  The fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K also need saturated fat to get absorbed.  This is also true for calcium.   In addition, the fatty acid butyrate, found in butter, is the foundation for the neurotransmitter GABA. Butter, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, nuts and seeds, and full-fat dairy products if you can tolerate them, are all sources of saturated fat for a healthy brain.  Be careful with nuts and seeds as they can have high amounts of omega-6 fats.

Micronutirents

Vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, B vitamins such as folic acid, magnesium, and potassium, and zinc, all work in concert with the proteins and fats that provide our brains with the nutrients they need to work well.  Vegetables, especially leafy greens and cruciferous varieties, as well as fruits, legumes, and grains, all contribute micronutrients vital to maintaining a healthy brain.

Vegetables, in particular, should be the main focus of our meals and should be rounded out with clean proteins and healthy fats.  For example, a typical meal could consist of a large green salad that includes baby greens, cucumber, tomato, onion as well as 4-6 ounces of chicken or fish or ½ cup of beans, lentils, or chickpeas, as well as ¼ of an avocado or a few nuts, seeds, or olives and an olive oil-based dressing.

A morning smoothie made with water, ¼ cup of full-fat coconut milk, a scoop of high-quality protein powder, a handful of frozen berries and a small piece of banana, a handful of baby greens, and a sprinkle of cinnamon or ginger.

A vegetable omelet or frittata made with butter, onions, and sautéed green vegetables.

Broiled salmon or chicken with mashed butternut squash, sautéed greens and tomatoes.

Sources:

Ross, Julia. The Mood Cure.  New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004.
Bennett, Connie, Sinatra, Stephen T.  Sugar Shock.  New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2004.

Comments

  1. pratibha kujur said on June 20th at 9:18 am:

    Thank you so much Linda for this article. I would be very grateful if you could answer a few questions that arose after I went through your article. Here they are:
    1)Are “steel cut oats” a better source of carbohydrate than “rolled oats”. How does the different processing method affect the grain’s nutritive value?
    2)Will canned sardines, mackerel and salmons be as effective as the fresh ones?
    3)My children are very fond of nuts and seeds(almonds,cashewnuts and peanuts mainly, roasted chickpeas) Can you pls suggest a suitable amount of nuts or seeds to be taken per day?
    4)What are the nuts and seeds with amounts of omega-6 fats and how much to consume?

    Thank you very much for your time and hope to hear from you soon.

    Regards.

  2. Linda said on June 21st at 10:42 am:

    Hi Pratibha,here are my answers to your questions:

    1. Rolled oats are a processed version of steel cut oats (they are steamed, rolled, steamed, and then toasted). The surface area is actually increased through the processing, allowing the rolled oats to be digested more quickly. As a slow-release carbohydrate, steel cut oats are the better choice.

    2. Yes, canned fish will offer the same omega-3 benefits as fresh fish, but the canned fish may be exposed to BPA from the cans.

    3. Usually, a small handful of nuts (5-10 almonds, for example) is enough for a day to get their benefits.

    4. Cashews and macadamias are the lowest in omega-6. Next are peanuts, almonds, hickory nuts, and pistachios, but they do contain considerable amounts of omega-6. A serving as suggested above is fine for these.

    Best,
    Linda

  3. pratibha kujur said on June 21st at 11:46 am:

    Thank you so much Linda for your answers. I’ll definitely take care of the points you have elaborated above.

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