By Jillian McMullen / Source: Health Source Magazine
When it comes to food, you have a wealth of delicious choices. And each one not only tastes good but also supplies unique health benefits. From blueberries to dark chocolate, leading nutritionists and physicians are pointing to certain foods that enhance brain power and, they say, a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Although theres no conclusive research about the healthful brain benefits of particular supplements, food sources rich in vitamin E and Omega 3 fatty acids may provide benefit, says Jillian McMullen, R.D., LD/N, Outpatient Clinical Dietician with Mayo Clinic.
Vitamin E-rich foods include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains. Omega 3-rich foods include fish, walnuts and flax seeds.
We also know that adequate amounts of B vitamins are essential for brain function, says McMullen. Some studies suggest a protective role of vitamins B9 (folic acid) and B12, but more research is needed before we can recommend these supplements. It doesnt hurt to eat foods rich in folic acid such as green, leafy vegetables, fortified breads and cereals, and dried beans, as well as those chocked full of vitamin B12 like fish, meat, eggs, cheese and chicken.
It's All About Balance
Theres no denying that as we age, our body (and brain) ages right along with us. Getting older brings some risk of cognitive problems such as Alzheimers disease or dementia. Theres also increased brain function risk from certain diseases like hypertension, diabetes and obesity that can cause damage to the brain.
Theoretically, we can control these diseases and keep our brain healthy unlike old age or genetic factors that we cant control, says Floyd Willis, M.D., family medicine practitioner and creator of Mayo Clinics LiveWell. ThinkWell. program.
It all ties together, Willis says. People who have the most risk of strokes are those with hypertension, diabetes and obesity. Often, people dont associate the truism that as goes the heart, so goes the brain (and kidney). The impetus of the Mayo LiveWell. ThinkWell. healthy brain program is about maintaining a healthy balance and healthy lifestyle.
Dr. Willis created the community outreach program offered through Mayos Memory Disorder Clinic to educate African-Americans about healthy brain aging and memory disorders. African-Americans may have higher risk for Alzheimers disease because they have a higher incidence of some medical conditions associated with dementia, according to the Alzheimers Association. The program provides information to seniors and their families about memory disorders and brain aging, including tips on how to keep the mind healthy.
Research is showing that you can increase your chances of maintaining a healthy brain well into old age if you add super foods to your daily diet. Blueberries have been found to help protect the brain and animal studies have shown that diets rich in blueberries significantly improved both the learning capacity and motor skills of aging rats, making them mentally equivalent to much younger rats.
But, we cant conclude that antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries, strawberries and spinach will have the same age-related reversal of brain deficits in humans as those they found in rats. The American Dietetic Association is currently studying the effect of strawberries, blueberries, prunes, spinach and fatty fish, and may find positive benefits to short term memory, says McMullen.
Whether or not the foods are brain super foods, theyre heart healthy and a great part of a balanced diet, she says. A diet rich in a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy is essential to overall health and energy.
Healthy Food for a Healthy Life
Carol Albanesi, Director of Food Services and a registered nurse for Flagler Hospital, agrees. The foods were talking about are foods that are necessary and appropriate for a healthy diet. Theres not any true super food. A healthy diet has to be part of a healthy lifestyle that includes getting enough sleep (six to eight hours a day) and eating right. By that I also mean eating breakfast, not skipping meals and adding several small snacks during the day.
Albanesi suggests that by eating healthy food, getting enough sleep and exercising three to five times a week youll increase your optimum health. All of these activities, including eating brain boosting super foods, bring oxygen to the brain by expanding blood vessels for increased blood flow to the brain.
Your circulatory system feeds your cells and pulls away toxins, she says. Thats why you need to increase blood flow with these activities. Exercise is particularly good because it increases blood flow, lowers blood pressure and keeps your body healthy.
Beans, she says, are a great food source because theyre a good carbohydrate and protein source, theyre inexpensive and they stabilize your glucose during the day. Drinking water is also important. Albanesi also suggests six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.
The Top Ten Brain Boosting Foods
Sally Clifton, MSH, RD, LD/N, at Shands Hospital, offers her top ten brain super food picks:
1. Coffee - The caffeine and the coffee bean itself have been shown to have some antioxidant properties, she says. Most of the benefits for boosting brain power come from the caffeine. Suggested serving: no more than two or three cups a day.
2. Tea - Freshly brewed green and black tea have antioxidant properties and some caffeine that dilates blood vessels and increases the blood flow to the brain, enhancing memory focus and mood. Its temporary so everyone should judge the amount, Clifton says. The tea contains catechines that are the antioxidant properties; flavored tea doesnt have caffeine. Suggested serving: no more than two or three cups a day.
3. Blueberries - Blueberries are one food that really stands out, she says, because they have a certain antioxidant that prevents oxidative stress to help reduce age-related diseases. Over time, because youre exposed to the environment, youre more exposed to free radicals. Thats why its so important that athletes take in fruits and vegetables.
She advises adding a variety of fruits to your diet. An easy way to add them is putting a cup in your smoothie, shake, yogurt or on cereal. Suggested serving: 1 cup a day.
4. Wild or farm-raised salmon - Wild salmon tends to be leaner and purer than farm-raised but both are good, she says. Salmon is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and contains anti-inflammatory substances that ultimately aid in blood flow and brain activity, lowering dementia and stroke risk and enhancing memory. Salmon even keeps the blood flowing in the very small capillaries in the brain, she says. Suggested serving: 4-ounces two or three times a week grilled, baked or broiled.
5. Nuts and seeds - Nuts and seeds are rich in vitamin E that boosts brain function and corresponds with less cognitive decline. Nuts and seeds also offer a large dose of monounsaturated fat that is heart healthy and promotes blood flow. A caveat is that nuts and seeds are very high in good fat, so limit the amount. Choose unsalted if you have hypertension. Almonds, walnuts and peanuts are very good but choose a variety, she says. Suggested serving: about one-fourth cup or one ounce a day.
6. Avocados - Although avocados got a bad rap for having a lot of fat several years ago, the green fruit is actually very healthy all around. Theyre packed with monounsaturated fat but its good fat. Avocados also have a lot of antioxidants and some amino acids (protein), help lower blood pressure and help reduce inflammation. I suggest putting them on a sandwich, in a salad or on your salmon for a double brain boost. Suggested serving: one-quarter to one-half of an avocado daily.
7. Whole grains - Whole grains like whole wheat bread, pasta, cereals, wheat germ and brown rice create good blood flow because they have more intact nutrients including vitamin E, antioxidants, fiber and some have Omega 3 fatty acids. Blood flow is crucial because it helps keep the integrity of cells in the brain, says Clifton.
8. Pomegranate juice - Although juice has been maligned because its packed with sugar, pomegranate juice is full of antioxidants and a small amount of sugar helps with immediate energy. Stick to about 2 ounces of natural fruit juice per serving. A way to do that is to mix the juice with sparkling water or sprite for a flavor boost. You can add it to water several times a day and eat a piece of fruit, she says. Suggested serving: about 6 to 8 ounces a day.
9. Beans - All kinds of beans including black beans, kidney beans and lentils offer a lot of fiber and help stabilize your glucose levels throughout the day, allowing your brain to better use the food for fuel. Suggested serving: one-half cup a day.
10. Dark chocolate - This decadent food has powerful antioxidant properties and also has a small amount of caffeine, a natural stimulant that aids with focus and concentration. Dark chocolate also stimulates production of endorphins that help improve mood. For a double health surge, try chocolate covered blueberries. Suggested serving: one-half to one ounce a day.
Back to Basics
The key is a healthy diet and eating small meals throughout the day to boost brain power because the food is giving you small energy boosts, says Clifton. I most often work with people to establish balance. Some people will drink coffee all day long. The unhealthy aspect of drinking this much coffee is that the caffeine suppresses appetite. So they deprive their body during the day and then overeat at night. Thats not a balanced, healthy way of eating.
Almost all of the super foods can easily be incorporated into one meal such as a salad or wrap. You may be thinking diet, but by adding these foods youre also sharpening your thinking. Clifton agrees that getting back to basics with exercise, getting eight hours of sleep a night (eight is more beneficial than less) and using meditation and relaxation exercises like yoga all help increase your body awareness and health.
With meditation and relaxation, you're breathing better and relieving tension and stress. It all goes together, but eating right does take some planning. The bonus to taking time to plan your meals is that youll gain more health benefits. A good idea is to get your spouse and children involved. Its more fun and motivating if you and your family cook together. Online resources for healthy recipes include eatright.org, the official website of the American Dietetic Association, and cookinglight.com, she says.