Can what you eat truly affect your brain power? Experts seem to think so. Sudeshna Ghosh finds out more.
If you find yourself zoning out in meetings, or forgetting where you kept your car keys, or leaving your mobile in the fridge one time too many, it could be what you’re eating that is to blame. Research has shown that diet has an important influence on everyday brain skills, as well as long-term brain function, with the right foods helping to prevent Alzheimers and dementia. “Nutrition and hydration are part of a foundation of good cognitive health. Just as the body needs fuel, so does the brain,” says dietitian Shiren Janus. “A diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, ‘healthy’ fats (such as olive oil, avacados, nuts, fish) and lean protein will not only provide lots of health benefits, but also improve memory and concentration.”
The Radisson Blu group of hotels recently introduced a new concept called ‘Brain food’ as part of their Experience Meetings initiative (for meetings and conferences at their hotels), with the objective of serving a scientifically designed menu that will help keep blood sugar levels stable and provide optimum cerebral nutrition, resulting in a high degree of brain activity and reactivity. According to Chef Uwe Micheel, Director of Kitchens Radisson Blu Hotel Dubai Deira Creek, “eating the right nutrients, at the right time, improves our ability to learn and concentrate. The concept came about with the goal of serving food that keeps blood sugar levels stable and supplies optimal nutrition for the brain.”
Here are some of the key ingredients that the menu focuses on, that you could also incorporate into your diet to reap the brain-boosting benefits of:
“Fish such as salmon are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential components of brain cell membranes and important for the transfer of brain impulses. Omega-3 fatty acids also have a part to play in the repair and formation of new brain cells, in addition to protecting the brain from natural aging processes,” says Uwe. Shiren adds, “While large-scale studies are required to establish the exact role of fish in memory and other brain functions, but pink salmon is a fatty fish high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids or more specifically high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) content, and research has shown that DHA can prevent the onset of Alzheimer's.”
“Most whole grains are rich in B-complex vitamins that promote brain health by protecting nerve tissue against oxidation. B-group vitamins and folic acid also help by enhancing memory and preventing stroke by reducing the harmful high levels of homocysteine in the body,” says Shiren. Grains such as dark rye bread, wholegrain pasta, brown rice, and muesli are good sources of B vitamins as well as folic acid and thiamine. “Brain cells operate better with a consistent supply of energy, which these foods provide,” adds Uwe. According to nutritionist and naturopathic therapist Kay Vosloo, “it is very important to stick to whole grains with a low GI value, as this will steady the blood sugar, thereby keeping you mentally alert during the day.”
Loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats, which are known to increase circulation and blood flow to the brain – which means lower blood pressure and more oxygen to the brain – avocados provide the brain with better working conditions. “Hypertension is associated with a decline in brain function, so eating avocadoes can boost brain health by aiding in lowering blood pressure,” says Shiren.
This ‘superfruit’ is rich in anthocyanines – an extremely powerful group of antioxidants that help to protect the body and brain from harmful substances. “Berries contain a rich bounty of antioxidants that can combat the free radicals that cause damage to the brain's healthy cells. They have potential benefits that can help ward off brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's as well as decrease the chances of dementia, which can be caused by oxidative stress,” explains Shiren. Uwe adds, “Blueberries also sharpen eyesight, which is an important part of how the brain gathers information.”
Rich in protein (whey and casein), vitamin B6, vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium and potassium – all of which are necessary for improving memory and cognitive functions – milk is a must, Shiren says. “Additionally, the whey protein is a mixture of alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin and serum albumin. Studies show that dietary protein rich in alpha-lactalbumin improves cognitive performance in stress-vulnerable people by increasing brain serotonin activity levels,” she adds.
“Acetylcholine is a substance found in large quantities in egg yolks, and research has shown that acetylcholine may be involved in increasing concentration levels, elevating the stress threshold and reducing reaction times,” says Uwe.
Nuts like walnuts and almonds contain high quantities of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins E and B6, all of which benefit the nervous system, including the brain function. Shiren says, “The nutrients in nuts can also ward off mental disease such as depression.” Kay adds, “Nuts and seeds are good sources of vitamin E which is great for intellect, reasoning and perception.”
“Hundreds of years ago, tea was used as medicine and modern research confirms that tea has a lot of important functions for our system,” says Uwe. Shiren suggests drinking green tea in particular, as “it contains polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that protect against free radicals that can damage brain cells. Among other benefits, regular consumption of green tea may enhance memory and mental alertness and slow brain ageing.”
Aside from the actual content of your diet, when and how you eat also has an impact on the brain’s performance. “You want to eat breakfast like a king so that this fuels your body and brain for the day. Your dinner meal should be the smaller and lighter meal of the day, allowing your body the ability to slow down before sleeping. You need a good night’s sleep to rest the brain so that it is ready for the next day, and you will not have a restful, solid sleep if your body is still trying to digest a large meal,” says Kay. “It is also important to always eat slowly and chew well in order to allow your body to release enough enzymes to break down the food. If your body doesn't break down the food, then you will struggle to absorb and assimilate the nutrients which are needed to fuel the brain.”
TRIED & TESTED
We sampled the Brain Food menu over a two-day period to see if it really helped us get smarter! While it is hard to tangibly measure the effects of such a diet in such a short period of time, the food was filling, yet light and delicious, and seemed to have a positive effect on productivity. Based on the six principles of including lots of fish, wholegrain products, fruit and vegetables; using primarily fresh, locally sourced ingredients; minimal processing; less meat and a maximum ten per cent fat content; natural sweeteners and no more than ten per cent added sugar; and a focus on taste and satisfying the senses, the menu is varied and creative. The breakfast menu for a typical day includes muesli with honey and apple; seasonal fruits with cottage cheese and celery and walnuts; cereal bar; smoked salmon and ricotta sandwich in rye bread; and grapefruit juice, while lunch could consist of asparagus soup; quinoa and wild rice with roasted pumpkin; poached chicken breast with rosemary juice; and fruit salad. Most importantly, it was educational – whether it’s a simple snack of cottage cheese with fruit and nuts, or a quinoa salad, they are all easy to prepare dishes, which are proven to be good for you.