Food therapy: How eating right can help you to think better
Tips from a nutritionist
Searching for ways to boost your engagement in business meetings? Increase workday efficiency in your office? Enhance comprehension in the classroom and retention in the library? Keep clever as you move from young to middle to older age? Or simply graduate from the daily game of "where in the world are my keys?" Well, you may not need to look further than your grocery basket. Medical experts unanimously agree — what goes in your mouth can affect what happens between your ears. That's right, you can literally feed your mind. How? As neurological research is released, the lists of nutritional brain 'defenders' and 'offenders' grow. To get you started, below you'll find a handful of both to compare to your current meals and snacks? A few simple additions and subtractions to your eating habits can nourish and reserve your noggin — not just today, but for years to come.
WHAT TO GRAB
If you care for a cup of tea, definitely go green. The natural antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) found in authentic green teas helps to improve overall brain function in healthy individuals and memory retention in those with Alzheimer's disease. Green tea's moderate caffeine levels — less than coffee but more than black tea — offer a modest kick that can perk up waning alertness and focus.
The polyphenols in olive oil are understood to augment learning and the acquisition of new information, as well as reverse progressive memory degeneration. Furthermore, when replacing saturated fat-rich butters and creams, olive oil is understood to lessen inflammation, vascular plaque formation, and risk of stroke. Get the most from your olive oil by purchasing cold-pressed extra virgin varieties. The milder processing preserves their nutrients and their robust color and flavor. Remember also that olive oil is not intended for high temperatures, so reserve your bottle out for light sautés, dressings and dips.
The phytochemical-rich pigments in berries — ranging from red to purple to dark blue — guard nerve cells head to toe from destructive free radicals. However blueberries deserve the spotlight for their benefits above the shoulders. Investigators haven't confirmed why, but people who include them in their diet have significantly higher scores on tests of learning and memory.
No, please don't consume the critters from the back yard. I'm referring to the beneficial probiotic bacteria found in yogurts, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, miso and other fermented or cultured foods. Though physically separated within the body, the gut and the brain are biochemically connected. The GI tract's microbiota influence the production of hormones and substances at work in the brain. Healthy bacterial balance improves concentration and the acquisition of new knowledge.
Betalains are the phytochemicals most responsible for beet's bright pink and magenta hues. In conjunction with vitamins C, manganese, these antioxidants protect nerve cells body-wide. Beets are also a unique dietary source of nitrates. Synthetic nitrates are notorious cancer-causers in processed foods. However, when naturally-occurring these compounds are curative for the cardiovascular system. They act as vasodilators — widening blood vessels to enhance flow of oxygen and nutrients to tissues, especially the brain.
Ditch egg-white-only dishes in favor of whole eggs. Why? Lecithin, an oily compound in egg's yolk, lubricates and structurally supports the membranes of nerve cells (called neurons). Choline, a sub-component of lecithin, aids in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, chemicals that conduct nerve firing and drive communication between 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' in the body. Egg yolks also provide docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This essential fatty acid is found in breast milk and even added to infant formulas, as it develops the newborn's brain and spinal cord. We now know that DHA should also be a life-long priority as it continues central nervous system maintenance into old age. Partial to edibles that are more plant-based? Beans (especially soy), avocado, sprouts, broccoli and peanuts offer some or all of these valuable nutrients.
Spinach, kale, collards — take your pick. These dark emerald veggies offer a terrific trio of brain function benefactors. The carotenoid pigments lutein and betacarotene are actually known to congregate in various centers of the brain. Therein they not only defend against oxidative damage, but positively influence verbal skills and recognition. The B-vitamin folate is also highly concentrated in leafy greens. It's of utmost importance to pregnant women in preventing defects in the neural tube (or early spinal cord), but remains vital to proper cognitive function and intellectual processes throughout the lifespan.
It doesn't get any easier or cheaper than good old-fashioned H2O. Your brain is comprised of about 70-75% water. When parched, mental task performance deteriorates and fatigue quickly sets in. Sipping on sufficient hydrating fluids throughout the day ensures optimal cognition, attention, and memory. So, keep re-fillable bottle on your desk or in your car, purse or gym bag, and drink up!
WHAT TO SKIP
Polishing and removing fibers from grains yields a pillow-like texture desirable for white breads, pastas and rice. Pleasing to the palate? Yes. Favourable for the brain? No. When consumed, white flour products drastically shift blood sugar levels. The brain prefers a steady — rather than fluctuating — stream of glucose for fuel. Any glycemic instability can interrupt concentration and disrupt mental performance. So, opt for whole grain alternatives whenever possible.
Sweets and sugars
Whether obvious (in desserts or candies) or hidden (in snacks and drinks), excess sugar in the diet translates to excess sugar in the bloodstream. These circumstances upset glycemic control (similar to refined grains) and contribute to systemic inflammation. Within the brain, sugars affect the hippocampus specifically — an area dedicated to long-term memory and navigational skills. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) — the most prolifically used sweetener in processed goods — can inhibit assimilation of new concepts and overall learning capacity.
These man-made synthetic substances can actually reduce brain size. Chronic consumption is also associated with poor recall and inferior verbal skills. Where are they hiding? Mostly in convenience snacks and bakery treats. So check your ingredient lists and opt out of items with "partially-hydrogenated" oils.
An occasional pinch won't hurt, but chronic consumption of heavily salted foods may be detrimental to the brain. Experts suggest that brain tissues are vulnerable to fluid-related swelling and sensitive to changes in pressure. Sodium impacts both. Monosodium glutamate (or MSG) another sodium-rich flavor enhancer is an excitoxin known to over-stimulates and exhausts nerves in the brainstem especially. Table salt and MSG are deceiving high in convenience snacks, canned and packaged goods, and fast foods. So put away the shaker and read labels carefully.
On the whole, passing on processed products is a wise approach to neurological health. The more manipulated our meals, the more the more artificial additives like colors, dyes, and stabilisers tend to accumulate. High levels of many of these substances are shown to disrupt cognition and the function of the hypothalamus. Instead, let Mother Nature steer your grocery cart and keep as few steps between the farm and your plate as possible.
About Eve Persak, nutritionist at COMO Shambhala
Eve is a Registered Dietitian (RD) with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is one of 3,500 medical professionals globally to hold Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CSNC) credentials with the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. Eve's expertise is rooted in science-based knowledge and provides comprehensive anthropometric and biochemical nutritional assessments, personalised therapeutic dietary recommendations, and guidance with meal planning and preparation. With COMO Hotels and Resorts, Eve is the Nutrition Editor and Consultant of COMO Shambhala's newly published cookbook, The Pleasures of Eating Well: Nourishing Favourites from the COMO Shambhala Kitchen. She also serves as Nutrition Advisor to Club21's SuperNature grocery store and leads The Home Kitchen Edit, a bespoke service by COMO Shambhala Urban Escape Singapore that sees Eve making home visits to help clients calibrate their pantry and draw up healthful meal plans.