People don’t always think of brain health when making nutrition choices because our society is very focused on physical appearance. People pay for designer clothes, spend money on cosmetics, and put time and effort into building six-pack abs. However, when it comes to internal health, whether brain health, heart health or joint health, people often neglect nutritional wisdom.
When we don’t see it, we ignore it.
There’s a disconnect in the way we look at our brain and the rest of the body. We forget that to look and feel our best we need optimal brain function. A healthy brain allows us to make decisions, such as getting up early in the morning to exercise over staying in bed to sleep; it’s a properly functioning brain that will help you choose a savory fruit versus a candy bar.
A crucial relationship between brain health and your fit body. Imagine the brain as the “orchestra conductor”. The brain controls the entire body. There is such a strong brain-body connection, in fact, that it is difficult to talk about any organ of the body as being separate or disconnected from the whole. However a healthy brain, working at optimal levels, makes it easier to adopt healthy behaviors, including:
- Optimal nutrition
- Movement and activity
- Rest and relaxation
Shouldn’t we all consider the diet-brain connection as vital if it keeps us from exhaustion and injury and controls our energy and appetite? If the brain is the “conductor” and all other organs are the “instruments,” together they form the orchestra, or the body. They depend on each other. But what makes the orchestra play beautifully is a virtuoso conductor. What makes your body function at its optimal fitness capacity is a healthy brain.
It’s important to recognize certain symptoms as brain health clues. Signs that your brain is not getting proper “nutrition” are more common than you may think. Symptoms vary from short attention span, impulsivity, procrastination, negative thoughts and actions, mood swings, and, lower motivation, anxiety, cravings and addiction, to memory problems, and impaired physical coordination.
FROM MOUTH TO BRAIN
It’s well-established that nutrients absorbed from food are fueling cell growth and regeneration, and according to the neuroplasticity theory that includes the brain cells as well. Hence your brain is what you eat and drink. If you eat processed foods, voided of nutrients, your brain will starve. You may be consuming plenty of calories, but lacking nutrients and the result will be a slow and heavy body. Let’s take a look at the best nutrition for the brain.
Your body is made of approximately 70% water and your brain is 80% water. The number one rule for optimal nutrition is HYDRATION. The best beverage for hydration is spring water or filtered water. If you exercise and sweat a lot and need to replenish electrolytes, I recommend coconut water.
Fat is critical for a healthy brain. 60% of the brain’s solid weight is fat: saturated fats, cholesterol and polyunsaturated omega 6 and omega 3 fats. In your diet, you need both saturated and unsaturated fats. You’ve probably been told to stay away from cholesterol and saturated fats. Those fats, however, have a critical role in brain function and structure, and are particularly important during developmental years (conception and early childhood), as well as later in life to help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Good saturated fats include butter and ghee (clarified butter) from grass-fed cows, eggs (particularly the yolk) from free-range chickens, and coconut oil.
Unsaturated fats are classified as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated:
Monounsaturated fats include olives and olive oil, avocado, nuts, such as macadamia, almonds, and pistachio.
Polyunsaturated fats are the essential fatty acids (EFA), omega 6 linoleic acid (LA) and omega 3 alpha linoleic acid (ALA). You need both of them in the correct ratio of about 2:1, omega 6 to omega 3. They are called essential because the body can’t manufacture them. Sources of omega 6 fats (LA) include all plant oils, such as soy bean, corn, sunflower, grape seed, safflower oils, and are easily obtained from the Standard American Diet (SAD). Omega-3 fats (ALA) are found in flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, sea vegetables, and are hard to get from the SAD and not fully converted into the brain healthy fats DHA and EPA. That’s why, when it comes to brain health you are better off consuming the omega 3 fats of marine source (DHA and EPA) such as those found in fatty fish: sardines, mackerel herring, anchovy, trout and wild salmon.
- Eat daily good sources of saturated fats (coconut oil, butter, eggs)
- Eat 2-3 times per week 3-4 oz. serving of fatty fish (sardines, mackerel, wild salmon)
- Eat daily mono-fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds)
- Avoid cooking with vegetable oils (soybean, corn, canola)
- Avoid margarines and all foods containing trans fatty acids (packaged goods, cookies, chips, processed foods)
Carbohydrates are used by the body as preferred source of energy. The brain uses about 20% of this energy. Aim to consume carbs that do not convert into sugar, such as non-starchy vegetables (cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beets etc.), greens (kale, spinach, dandelion, romaine, collards, etc.), fruits (berries, cherries, papaya, mango, peaches, apricots, etc.). Avoid carbs that convert rapidly into sugar, such as pastries, candy, soda, fruit juices, all the “whites”—bread, pastas, potatoes, rice, and of course sugar.
No artificial sweeteners please
These are not food. Studies have linked artificial sweeteners to increased sugar cravings, overeating and weight gain. Use natural sweeteners in small amounts, such as honey or dry fruits. As a non-caloric, plant-based sweetener I like green stevia, liquid or powder. Avoid the white stevia as it is refined.
Don’t forget, this advice is not just for adults. There are ways to incorporate healthy brain foods into children’s diet. The first rule is the parents need to eat what they expect their children to eat. I recommend the following fun game: “Pick Your ABC Brain Foods” game. Each day have your kids pick up 3 letters from the alphabet and choose one food from each letter. That means 3 brain foods each day. Parent should pick as well; children will want to model you.
“Pick Your ABC Brain Foods” Game
- Almonds, asparagus, avocados, apples,
- Bell peppers (red, yellow, orange), beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, blackberries, and blueberries (organic)
- Carrots, cherries, cheese (preferably from raw organic whole milk coming from grass fed cows, goats or sheep), chicken (preferably organic and or free range)
- Dandelion, dates
- Eggs, eggplant,
- Figs (fresh when in season and dry when not)
- Grapefruit, goji berry
- Herring, honeydew
- Lemons, lime, lentils, lamb
- Mackerel, mango
- Olives & olive oil, onion, oranges,
- Peaches, plums/prunes, pomegranates, peas
- Raspberries, red grapes (preferably with seeds), red cabbage
- Strawberries (organic), spinach, sardines, salmon (wild)
- Trout (river), turkey, tomatoes,
- Walnuts, wolf berries, water