A back-to-work menu for brain power

Leslie Beck, RD See Bio

Copyright © Leslie Beck, 2015.

Leslie Beck, Registered Dietitian, is the best-selling author of 12 books on nutrition and health, writes a weekly column in The Globe and Mail, and is a regular contributor to CTV News. Based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto, Leslie offers one-on-one diet coaching, personalized meal plans and evidence-based recommendations on the use of nutritional supplements. www.lesliebeck.com

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Soon kids will head back to the classroom and many of us will return to our regular work schedules. If you’re wondering how to get your brain back into gear, the answer might be no farther away than your refrigerator.

Scientists are learning that the right foods, eaten at the right times, can help you concentrate, stay motivated, improve your memory and may even protect against age-related brain decline.

From carbohydrates and omega-3 fats to blueberries and spinach, research suggests the following brain-friendly foods and nutrients are worth adding to your fall menu.

 

Breakfast

Children who skip breakfast are more sluggish, less attentive and have less energy for morning activities than their peers who eat the morning meal. Among adults, eating breakfast leads to improved mood, enhanced memory and increased energy.

Breakfast foods like cereal, toast and fruit raise blood glucose levels, which in turn fuels the brain after a night of fasting. Glucose is also used to make acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in memory.

Choose breakfast foods that provide a slow and sustained release of glucose (a.k.a. low glycemic foods) such as steel-cut or large flake oatmeal, 100% bran cereal, grainy breads, yogurt, milk, soy beverages, apples, oranges, grapefruit, berries, grapes, pears, nuts and seeds.

Berries

Berries are rich in polyphenols, phytochemicals that protect brain cells by fighting free radical damage, reducing inflammation and removing toxic proteins that accumulate with age. Blueberries and strawberries appear to be most potent in terms of brain health.

Other polyphenol-rich fruit include acai berries, blackberries, cherries, cranberries, plums, pomegranate seeds, prunes, raspberries and red and purple grapes. When berries are out of season, include frozen and dried berries in your diet.

Walnuts

Research has shown that a walnut-rich diet – equivalent to 1 ounce or 14 walnut halves – can reverse age-related motor and cognitive deficits in aged rats.

Polyphenols in walnuts are thought to protect the brain by fending off free radicals and promoting communication between brain cells.  Like berries, walnuts also activate the brain’s house-cleaning process that removes damaged proteins.

Leafy greens

A daily intake of leafy green vegetables such as kale, arugula, Swiss chard, collard greens, rapini, Romaine lettuce and spinach has been shown to slow the rate of cognitive decline in older adults.

Researchers believe the protective effect of leafy greens is due to vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects brain cells from oxidative damage and inflammation.

Include at least one serving (½ cup of cooked greens or 1 cup of salad greens) in your daily diet.  Cooked greens contain more antioxidants than raw.

Omega-3’s

Include oily fish like salmon, trout, Arctic char, herring and sardines in your diet twice a week to increase your intake of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the dominant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain that helps keep the lining of brain cells flexible so memory messages can pass easily between cells.

DHA is also thought to prevent the build-up of beta amyloid, a protein that can interfere with communication between brain cells. Research has also found that increasing DHA intake can improve memory in healthy adults.

If you don’t like fish – or you eat it infrequently – consider taking fish oil in capsule or liquid form. Note, though, that fish liver oil capsules are typically not a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Long term intake of fish liver oil may lead to toxicity due to high amounts of vitamin A.

Unsaturated fats

Limit your intake of foods high in saturated (animal) fat like butter, cream, cheese and fatty meats. Higher intakes of saturated fat have been linked to a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Prepare foods with unsaturated fats such as olive, canola, peanut and grapeseed oils. To increase your intake of monounsaturated fat include almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and avocado in your diet. These fats help reduce inflammation, blood clot formation and hardening of the arteries in the brain.

Apples

According to research in mice, eating an apple or two each day can sharpen memory.  Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell found that a diet enriched with apple juice – comparable to two 8-ounce glasses of apple juice or 2 to 3 apples a day – increased the production of acetylcholine in the brain, resulting in enhanced memory on maze tests.  Scientists suspect that antioxidants in apples are responsible for improving cognition and memory.

Iron

Low iron stores (e.g. low ferritin in the bloodstream) – even in the absence of full blown anemia – can impair concentration and memory in kids and adults.  Iron helps transfer oxygen to brain cells; it’s also used to make neurotransmitters involved in concentration and learning.

Good food sources include red meat, enriched breakfast cereals, whole grain breads, dried fruit beans, legumes, tofu, and nuts. Menstruating females and vegetarians should take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement to help meet daily iron requirements.


Copyright © Leslie Beck, 2015.

Leslie Beck, Registered Dietitian, is the best-selling author of 12 books on nutrition and health, writes a weekly column in The Globe and Mail, and is a regular contributor to CTV News. Based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto, Leslie offers one-on-one diet coaching, personalized meal plans and evidence-based recommendations on the use of nutritional supplements. www.lesliebeck.com

 

 

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