Healthy Eating: Food for Your Brain

Girl with pumpkin

Need a quick fix or a long-haul iron boost? Find out what foods work best and worst for ultimate brain power.

Everyone knows the effects of high cholesterol foods on the heart, the need for fiber for the intestinal system, and avoiding salt to reduce swelling. The nutritionally conscious are now also focusing on how the food you eat can affect your brain.

Eating smart from the start

The brain itself represents only 2% of our total body weight, but consumes roughly 20% of the calories you take in. The brain is very sensitive to how much you eat.

It starts in the womb. Much of brain development occurs during pregnancy as the fetus is rapidly growing inside the mother. This is why obstetricians work with expectant mothers to assure adequate intake of vitamins and appropriate foods. During pregnancy the deficiency of folic acid - also known as Vitamin B9 - is associated with brain and spinal cord defects. The developing brain needs a certain amount of vitamins, essential fatty acids, and amino acids to ensure proper development - and this need continues after birth as the brain continues to grow and develop during childhood.

Myths - caffeine and herbs

For centuries people have been drinking tea, coffee, and other caffeine-laced beverages as stimulants for faster thinking and to ward off drowsiness. However, caffeine may have some negative effects such as a faster heart rate. It can also be physically addictive. Many people report headaches and even depression if they miss their coffee for a few days.

Other herbs that have been touted as having an impact on function include ginseng and gingko. But science hasn't found significant impacts directly related to either of these.

What works?

Vitamins and minerals play a vital role in brain health and can even help prevent illness and disease. Medical studies have shown that magnesium can help prevent migraine headaches and vitamin B12 has been used with the elderly to prevent a loss of brain function and boost memory. Vitamins such as B6, B9, and B12 help with the development of our brain's neurotransmitters - the parts that determine how fast our brain functions.

The amount of sugar in your body has much to do with how well you function. How many parents can tell when their children eat too many sweets and get a "sugar rush" that sends them spiraling out of control? Patients with diabetes are subject to episodes of either hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia; they find their brains are clouded when the sugar levels get too low or too high. There is a delicate balance that needs to be maintained to achieve optimal brain function.

So how do you eat right to optimize brain activity? Unfortunately, there is no miracle "brain food" that will make you smarter. But by following a few basic rules, you can optimize your brain capacity:

  1. Avoid sugar loads and brain starvation - By eating smaller portions more often, you can ensure that the glucose levels in the brain are at a constant level rather than going from excess to starvation. This will help avoid the fuzzy thinking that follows food binges.
  2. Avoid toxins - Too much wine with dinner not only clouds your thinking that night, but studies show that alcohol is toxic to your brain over time, causing an actual loss of brain matter.
  3. Take vitamins and eat a balanced diet - It is not absolutely necessary to take a multi-vitamin if you eat a good balanced diet. But if in the rush of modern life, few of us have time to make sure we are eating and drinking the best, most nutritious foods. We tend to eat fast or over-processed food, which have little nutritional value or vitamins. Many of us could benefit from vitamin supplements.
  4. Be like Popeye - Not getting enough iron can cause anemia - which reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the red blood cells to the brain. Foods rich in iron include spinach, parsley, whole grain cereals, oysters, lima beans, baked potatoes, and asparagus.

Eating the right healthy foods, having smaller portions frequently throughout the day, and avoiding toxins can all help with your brain's health.

About the Author

Dr. Tom James

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