Buy up on brain food
The brain is the largest of our body’s organs and like our hearts, livers and other organs, it is affected by the food we eat. So, are you buying the best food for your brain?
It is currently estimated that mental health treatment is costing the UK a mind-boggling £100 billion per year. The Mental Health Foundation claims that changes in diet over the last 50 years could be contributing towards this cost. So, what role does diet really play and what are the top foods to feed your brain and keep it healthy throughout your life?
The brain-food-link debate
Only 20 years ago, it was still being strongly debated whether diet was influential in the progression of coronary heart disease. Yet, with hindsight we now know that the association is very real. So why is it the link between diet and brain health – and hence how we think and act – still not recognised by government and many health professionals?
Years ago, scientist Michael Crawford warned that an increase in heart disease would soon be followed by a rise in mental health problems… His rational being that the nutrients necessary for keeping a healthy heart were the same as those needed for a healthy brain. It seems that his predictions may be right after all.
Why does our food affect our brain?
60% of the dry matter in the brain is in fact fat, of which about one third are essential fatty acids (omega-3s and omega-6s) which are, so-called because they cannot be synthesized by the body and thus must be obtained from our food. The essential fatty acid DHA is a primary component of the membranes of nerve cells in the brain and is involved in multiple brain functions. So it’s pivotal for optimum brain health that our food contains this nutrient or its precursors.
Studies show that antioxidants – nutrients abundant in fruits and vegetables – can reduce inflammation and oxidative processes involved in damaging brain cells. Therefore, a typical Mediterranean diet which includes oily fish, lean meat and a wide range of fruits and vegetables provides roughly the right balance.
Furthermore, French researchers have linked eating plenty of foods rich in super nutrients called flavonoids to slowing cognitive decline. And since flavonoid-rich foods often appear in Mediterranean diets (including onions, aubergines, endives, red peppers, Lollo Rosso lettuce, berries, citrus fruits and red wine), this could help to explain the potential protective effects of this type of diet in heart disease and cognitive decline.
What are the top brain foods?
If emigrating to the nearest Mediterranean country in order to more easily follow the local food regime is out of the question, you just need to know what foods you should be including more or less of in your diet. Studies would suggest staying away from over-processed foods as these contain chemicals; preservatives, additives and enhancers that may interfere with neurotransmitter (or brain chemical) formation.
On the upside, the following foods are known to be beneficial for brain health and overall mental wellbeing:
1. Omega-3 fish oils
Oily fish (e.g. mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring, tuna) contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA and since about 8% of the dry matter of the brain is DHA, what further reason do you need for adding oily fish to the menu? Read more in Choosing fish for omega-3 fatty acids
2. Antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables
Antioxidants play a role in protecting brain tissue from oxidation. Vitamins such as folate (green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals), a range of B vitamins (whole grain products, yeast and dairy products) and antioxidant vitamins such as C and E (in a wide range of fruit and vegetables) – all found in fruit and veg – act as potent antioxidants or precursors for neurotransmitters. Read more in Fruits for health
An excuse to buy up on chocolate? Well no, not quite. Most chocolate contains high levels of sugar and fat and little cocoa bean. If you want to reap the rewards of this flavonoid rich food you’ll have to aim for 100% organic cocoa powder from a good quality maker who minimally processes the cocoa or, choose only high cacao percentage dark chocolate bars – typically at least 75% cacoa content or higher.
4. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds provide minerals, such as zinc (also found in legumes, meat and milk), magnesium (also present in many green leafy vegetables), and iron (also in red meat, green leafy vegetables, eggs and some fruit). These minerals have been shown to play a role in the stimulation and levels of certain neurotransmitters. The perfect excuse for making them your mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack! Read more in Pulses, seeds and nuts
5. Green tea
Recent studies suggest that drinking green tea and other herbal teas may help to improve your memory and as result some companies have started to make these claims without the full scientific backing. Despite this, we do know that green tea is particularly high in EGCG a catechin and potent antioxidant. Studies have shown that in high doses this nutrient has anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties. Drunk in moderation green tea may contribute toward brain health by mopping up free radicals that cause oxidative damage.
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