Thursday 17 October 2019

Need a storm detox? Here's how to eat well this week

Diet plays a key role in every aspect of brain function, shielding it from harm, says neuroscientist Dr Lisa Mosconi. So exactly what should you be eating?

Fatty fish, eggs, olive oil, berries and dark greens are all good for powering up the brain
Fatty fish, eggs, olive oil, berries and dark greens are all good for powering up the brain
Brain Food

It's hard to imagine that our thoughts, actions, emotions and behaviour belong to anyone other than ourselves, or are caused by anything beyond character or destiny. But from a neuroscientist's perspective - or more specifically, the perspective of neuro-nutrition - research makes clear that diet plays a determinant role in every aspect of brain function, literally shaping the performance and outcome of our minds.

The research, including my own work, has helped to reveal that some foods are neuro-protective, literally shielding the brain from harm and supporting cognitive fitness over the course of a lifetime. And unsurprisingly, it has also proven that other foods are correspondingly destructive.

A brain-healthy diet is optimized to contain all of the foods that help keep the brain healthy, sharp, and active over the course of a lifetime - while also reducing the risk of developing cognitive impairment and dementia as we get older. Unlike other diets, you wouldn't notice the difference because your wardrobe fits differently. You would notice because you are more or less alert, or engaged, and one day, more or less affected by various forms of dementia.

A diet to address brain health is particularly important as brain cells are irreplaceable. In the rest of the body, our cells are born with a limited lifespan, and are continuously replaced. For example, we all shed hair every day, which is replaced by new hair in a matter of days. Our skin cells are constantly renewed every 10 to 30 days, and our red blood cells every three to four months. But the vast majority of brain cells, or neurons, are born with us, and stay with us for a lifetime.

Therefore, providing our precious neurons with the right foods and nutrients is a crucial, lifelong process.

With that in mind, these are the top 10 foods for a healthy, happy brain, some of which are practical, delicious, or both:

1 Dark leafy greens (eg, spinach, chard, kale, and collard greens) are excellent sources of antioxidants and vitamins like folate, which help brain cells grow and stay healthy.


2 Berries (especially blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries but also dark cherries and goji berries, pictured right) are packed with antioxidants that help keep memory sharp as you age. They are also a great source of fibre and glucose, the main energy source for the brain. They are sweet but have a low glycemic index so they help regulate sugar levels.

3 Extra virgin olive oil is loaded with anti-aging nutrients like omega-3s and vitamin E, as well as monounsaturated fat, the kind of fat that is good for the heart - and what is good for the heart is good for the brain.

4 Eggs contain all the nutrients an embryo needs to grow. As such, they are packed with nutrients that support brain health, like omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, lutein, and choline, a B vitamin that supports memory formation and concentration.

5 Caviar contains a very unique blend of nutrients that are perfect for the brain, including omega-3 fats (a brain-must), choline (a B vitamin needed to make memories), vitamin B6 and B12 (needed to support the nervous system), minerals like iron and magnesium (needed for healthy blood and tissues), and a good amount of protein combined with potent antioxidants like vitamin A, vitamin C, and selenium.

6 Fatty fish is my recommended every-day alternative to caviar, which is obviously impractical as a staple for most anyone. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines are exceptionally rich in omega 3 fatty acids, which are literally what the human brain is made of - over 50pc of the brain is fat, and most of that fat is omega-3 DHA, a special kind of fat found only in fish.

7 Sweet potatoes are packed with antioxidant beta-carotene and vitamin C, as well as iron and copper, which are all a brain-must.

8 Whole grains (like whole wheat, brown rice, and oats), besides being rich in B-complex vitamins and minerals, have a high fibre content and a low glycemic index, which supplies your brain with a steady stream of energy.

9 Yoghurt (organic, plain and unsweetened) contains a bounty of vitamins and fatty acids that support cell growth and functioning, while probiotics support gut health, boosting your immune system.


10 Raw cacao is rich in theobromine, a powerful antioxidant known to support cellular aging and reduce the risk of heart disease. Its effects are similar to those of caffeine, as they both improve blood flow to the brain - but cacao doesn't give you the jitters. You can use raw cacao to make cacao tea, or in your smoothies. Dark chocolate with cocoa content of 80pc or higher (the higher, the better) is also rich in theobromine and natural antioxidants. Besides, chocolate makes you happy.

Though not considered a "food" per se, let's talk about water. Over 80pc of the brain's content is water. As such, the brain is so sensitive to dehydration that even a minimal loss of water can cause symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, dizziness, and confusion - but more importantly, it can cause brain shrinkage. The longevity and well-being of your brain are critically dependent upon consuming hard water, which means plain water high in minerals and natural electrolytes. Most people don't realize that the water they're drinking is not actually "water". Purified water, club soda, seltzer - all these beverages are devoid of the precious nutrients the brain needs to stay hydrated and work efficiently. Here is a simple way to check if you are dehydrated: fill a bottle of warm water. Not hot, just warm. Drink small sips every five minutes. If after 30 minutes the warm water feels good, and you want more, then you are dehydrated - and so is your brain.

Keep in mind that it's not only about what we should eat - it's also about what we shouldn't eat. Foods that should be consumed sparingly and in moderation include: fast food, fried food, processed foods, and fatty foods like red meat, pork, and dairy. These foods can be harmful for the brain, thereby slowing us down in general, making us feel sluggish and tired - while at the same time increasing our risk of dementia.

Many of us alter our diets in the hopes of changing how we appear to others. But in considering what you have for dinner tonight, remember that while some of it may indeed end up on your waistline, the most important parts of it will actually become part of your brain. So eat well and treat yourself, and your brain, kindly.

● Dr Lisa Mosconi, PhD, is associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City. This piece is adapted from Brain Food: How to Eat Smart and Sharpen Your Mind.

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