Healthy diet boosts brain power at any age
By: Daniel Palmquist, M.D.
Most athletes wouldn’t consider showing up for the big game without proper preparation. They know that the body performs best when it is healthy, and this includes a healthy diet.
The same can be said about the brain. It is an organ that performs best when it has the fuel needed to operate at peak capacity. Certain foods fuel this operation better than others. As kids head back to school this fall, you can help them ensure maximum learning by giving their brains a nutritional boost.
This advice isn’t just for students. Parents and grandparents, the same foods that help kids get ready to learn can help keep your mind in top condition as well.
The brain is an amazing organ. It makes up only two percent of a person’s total body weight, but requires about 20 percent of the heart’s output of blood to sustain its oxygen requirements. This makes it the most oxygen-demanding organ in the body. It is the first of the body’s organs to absorb nutrients from the foods we eat. Simply put, the brain is a hungry organ. What should you feed it?
Slow digesting glucose, complex carbohydrates and proteins provide the brain with the constant and steady supply of energy that it needs. Foods that fit the bill in this category include whole grains, oatmeal, beans, dairy, eggs, lean meats and poultry.
Water is a substance that the brain cannot do without. Dehydration, even just a mild case, can make it hard to concentrate and pay attention. Lack of water can make a person listless, lethargic and irritable – hardly a recipe for school success. The best way to get enough water is to simply drink it. Avoid sugary juices and sodas. Fruit can also replenish the body’s water supply. Most fruit is more than 80 percent water. Especially hydrating choices include watermelon, grapefruit, strawberries, peaches, cantaloupe, oranges and tomatoes. Carrots, technically a vegetable, also pack a good water punch.
Omega-3 fatty acids support synaptic growth and function, improving learning and memory. Foods high in fatty acids are salmon, halibut, sardines, tuna, trout, herring, walnuts, flaxseed oil, canola oil, shrimp, clams, catfish, cod, kiwi and spinach. Kidney and pinto beans contain more omega-3’s than other beans.
Choline has been shown to improve memory development. It may prevent memory loss associated with aging. Foods with ample choline include eggs, beef (especially liver), poultry (especially liver), pork, shrimp, cod, orange roughy, salmon, tilapia, lamb, artichokes, cooked broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, nuts and navy beans.
Iron increases your ability to play attention, while boosting brain development and function. Eating a small amount of lean beef – just one ounce per day -- has been shown to help the body absorb iron from other sources. In addition to beef, try clams, pork liver, oysters, chicken liver, mussels, enriched breakfast cereals, cooked beans and lentils, pumpkin seeds, wheat bran and spinach to add an iron boost to your diet.
Zinc is an essential mineral that is found throughout your body. It works in the brain to improve memory and overall brain function. Foods rich in zinc are beef, oysters, pork, poultry, beans, nuts, whole grains, yogurt and fortified breakfast cereals.
Antioxidants are made up of vitamins C and E, selenium and beta carotene. They reduce oxidative stress on the brain and may boost cognitive functioning. To gain vitamin C, eat citrus fruits, berries, dark green vegetables, tomatoes, pineapple and cantaloupe. Vitamin E can be found in vegetable oils, whole grains, nuts, brown rice, oatmeal, soybeans and beans. For selenium, look to oatmeal, brown rice, chicken, eggs, dairy, salmon, tuna, whole grains and most vegetables. Finally, for beta carotene, make your goal a colorful variety of vegetables. Examples are broccoli, spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes. While the antioxidants are one group of brain foods, it’s important to include foods from each of the four antioxidant types in your healthy diet.
The B-vitamins are a group of 11 members of what’s known as the B-complex. They are needed for normal brain and memory function and contribute to the health and growth of brain tissue, neurotransmitters and enzymes. Good sources of B vitamins include whole grains, yeast, meat, low fat dairy, lentils and leafy greens.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Junk in, junk out.” This is certainly true for the brain – at any age. So, whether you are a student headed back to school this fall, a parent trying to stay current with the new math, or a grandparent hoping to boost memory, pay attention to your diet. Certain foods can boost brain power, improve memory and enhance concentration. Serve yourself up a plateful and reap the cognitive benefits.
Dr. Palmquist is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.