Brain Foods

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If you feel like your memory is starting to fade, don't blame your age. It could be your diet! Registered Dietitian Elizabeth Somer, the author of "Eat Your Way to Happiness," stopped by with foods that will improve your brain power.

What and how much you eat, or don't eat, has a profound effect on how clearly you think and concentrate, on your intelligence level, memory, and reaction time, and even on how quickly your brain ages.

1. Can our diets really make a difference in how well we think and remember?

Yes! Your brain is not destined to get fuzzy. Genetics is only part of the equation; 66% of how smart you are and will be in the future has to do with how you choose to take care of yourself yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The belief that brain cells can’t regenerate, that there is a finite number, which over time wither, dwindle, and die - leading to memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s - is outdated and just plain wrong. Scientists now recognize that the brain is amazingly resilient and “plastic,” which means it has the ability to tweak its structure and function.

The brain is only as good as what you feed it. Diet is the only place your brain gets the building blocks to build healthy nerve cells. Make stupid lifestyle choices, such as eating a high-saturated fat diet, sitting like a lump on the couch, smoking, or refusing to learn new things as you age, and you are asking for a dramatic decline in brain cell numbers and their connections, which means fewer cells to store memory and fewer connections between cells to retrieve them. One study from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found that people who did not take care of their minds in their 20s through 50s were three times more likely to develop Alzheimers in their 60s and 70s. Or, get smart and follow a few simple diet guidelines, exercise daily, and adopt a few memory-boosting habits, and you literally increase the size of your brain, the number of neurons, and the amount of connections between nerve cells. That equates to an astonishing improvement in mind, memory, and mood both today and down the road. In fact, seniors who eat right, move more, and live well react and problem solve just as quickly as people who are decades younger

2. Sign me up. Where do we start!

We know that chronic inflammation increases the risk for a whole host of diseases, from heart disease to cancer. It also damages circuitry and circulation to the brain, increasing the risk for muddled thinking today and dementia down the road. Foods that promote inflammation include vegetable oils like safflower, corn, and soy oils, as well as saturated fats in meat and fatty dairy products, refined grains and sugar, trans fats in processed and fast foods, potatoes, fried foods, palm or coconut oils, pastries, and processed meats like hot dogs (the nitrite additives in these luncheon meats are especially damaging).

Foods that reduce inflammation and protect the brain from damage include extra-virgin olive oil, colorful fruits and vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, soy, whole grains, tea, and certain spices, such as turmeric and ginger. Eat real, unprocessed foods at least 75% of the time and focus on plants and fatty fish and you will reduce inflammation and stay brain strong.

3. Eat real foods at least 75% of the time lowers inflammation. What else can we expect from that basic guideline?

The added benefit of eating real, instead of processed, foods is that you will lose weight. Studies show that people who is overweight in their middle years have a three-fold increased risk for dementia later in life. So maintaining a fit weight is critical for brain power today and down the road.

4. Is fish really brain food, or is this an ol’ wives’ tale.

Fish is brain food, if you choose the right fish. Your brain is very greasy, but in a good way. More than 60% of it is fat. Unlike the lazy fat stored on the hips or belly, fat in the brain is a worker bee. It makes up the cell membranes that surround each cell and the insulation sheath around neurons that allows thoughts to travel fast from one cell to another. The more fluid and flexible those membranes, the faster you react, the more you remember, and the more creative and clever you are.

That’s why the brain loves omega-3 fats. These are the most fluid of all fats. Your body can’t make them, so is entirely dependent on you choosing the grilled salmon not the cheeseburger for lunch. Nerve connections alone increase by almost a third by adding more omega-3s to the diet! The more omega-3s consumed, the more are incorporated into brain tissue, and the smarter, more clever and creative you become and stay. Also, the less prone to gooey plaque that builds up around nerve cells leading to Alzheimer’s. This might explain why a DHA-rich diet lowers dementia risk by up to 60%.

You get the biggest bang for your buck with the omega-3 DHA, and maybe a bit of help from EPA. You’ll get the least results from the omega-3 fat, alpha linolenic acid or ALA, in flax, walnuts, soy, and other plants, which is great for the heart and

5. What else can we eat to save our minds?

Load up on antioxidants. The culprit here is oxygen. While oxygen is the most important nutrient for life, it also has a dark side. Oxygen fragments, called oxidants or free radicals, are part of the air we breath. They also are in fried foods, air pollution, tobacco smoke, and sunlight, and are generated in the body during normal metabolism.

These oxidants are like street gangs attacking unsuspecting cells, cell membranes, and even the genetic code within cells. Left uncheck, each cell in our body is attacked about one thousand times a day. As cells are damaged or killed, the accumulating debris clogs tissues, while organs begin to breakdown. Oxidative damage is a major underlying cause of all age-related diseases, from cancer to dementia and Alzheimers. It also initiates inflammation. The brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage. It accounts for only 2% of ideal body weight, but consumes between 20% and 25% of the oxygen we inhale. Consequently, it generates more oxidants per gram of tissue than any other organ in the body.

Luckily, the right diet is packed with anti-free radicals or antioxidants. You’ll find almost one million of them in colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, red wine, dark chocolate, whole grains, and other plants. Aim for 9 servings a day of colorful produce and you will dramatically reduce your risk for dementia.

6. Any supplements we should consider that will keep our minds sharp?

Take a fish oil capsule if you don’t eat salmon regularly. Also, several nutrients are important for a sharp mind, including vitamin B12, folic acid, iron, and vitamin C. You will get enough vitamin C and folic acid by just eating those colorful fruits and vegetables, but vitamin B12 can be a problem, especially as a person ages or if he/she is taking an acid-blocking medication which also reduces B12 absorption. Make sure your multi has enough of this vitamin. Iron carries oxygen to the brain, so is critical for clear thinking. Men and post-menopausal women probably don’t need to supplement, but women and teenage girls who menstruate should have their iron checked and if it is low, take a supplement.

7. What about exercise?

If you are truly serious about staying mentally sharp, then there are no excuses! You must exercise daily - both muscles and brain. People who challenge their brains by learning, problem-solving, and trying new things, and who exercise every day, also think faster, remember more, learn easier, are more creative and better problem solvers. They are least likely to develop memory loss, dementia, or Alzheimer’s. They also have more energy, motivation, and desire to learn. They are happier, more content with their lives, and more optimistic. In short, they feel confident, energized, and sexy.