5 Brain Foods For A Better Life

The words “Brain Foods” may sound like just another marketing ploy to convince you of an easy fix to better mental health. Especially when you realise that 60 years ago cigarettes were advertised as being good for brain health by supposedly helping to calm the nerves!

The term brain foods might seem to be the same on first reading however we’ve all heard that eating more fish will make you brainier and other such claims. This may seem like an old wives’ tale (or old husband’s tale) but there are some real benefits to including certain foods in your diet that will really improve your cognitive abilities.

It is true that no foods will turn you into a genius but certain foods will help to improve your brain health especially if your diet doesn’t already contain them. The science behind helpful brain foods is still fairly new, but the evidence is looking good. The brain just like any other part of the human body is an organism that needs certain nutrients to operate properly.

Many foods can interact with the brain, but scientific research currently suggests that four different types of chemicals and nutrients available in foods do so in a positive way. So, what do clever people eat, and can you really improve your brainpower by adding certain foods to your diet? Can eating well really give you a better life?

First up: what makes a brain food.

The four components of a good brain food

Your brain requires a mix of nutrients to ensure it is functioning efficiently.

Brain Foods For A Better Life

Amino Acids: The Amino acids help to connect the brains neurotransmitters that keep your brain sharp.

Neuro transmitters contain:

  • Dopamine controls the immune and nervous system to function properly
  • Norepinephrine for alertness and concentration
  • Serotonin for mood, sleep, memory, and learning
  • Acetylcholine for storage and recall of memory
  • Amino acids that are often found in protein-rich foods

Antioxidants: Oxidative stress destroys brain cells and is caused by the body converting glucose to energy. This conversion causes an overproduction of oxygen that is more commonly known as free radicals. Antioxidants can be used to block these free radicals so your brain doesn’t have to work as hard.

Fatty Acids: Polyunsaturated fatty acids help to improve and strengthen the synapses that relate to memory. The most well-known types are known as omega-3 and omega-6.

Glucose: Most of the energy the brain uses is taken from Glucose. Glucose is the fuel the brain needs and it is converted from fats and sugars. This is one of the reasons that when you’re hungry the brain tells you to eat a fatty, sugary doughnut. The brain wants energy from glucose and doesn’t care how it gets it! Obviously, an unregulated diet of doughnuts is going to impact badly on the rest of your body!

So what are the top 5 brain foods we can eat to improve our mental abilities?

It is better to look at food groups rather than any one so called miracle food for the best results. Here are five easy tips to help.

1. Eat more high protein foods!

Egg, shell, protein, brain foods

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, so the foods with the highest amount of amino acids are those that are highest in protein. Animal based foods have all 20 amino acids in them of which 9 cannot be created in the body. Most plant based alternatives are low in one or more essential amino acids.

Good high protein brain foods include;

  • Red meat is one of the foods highest in protein, with lean cuts of beef providing the most proteins and amino acids. Red meat has about 31 grams in each 3-ounce serving. Ham and pork contain slightly less amino acids but cover nearly all of the Amino acids in their raw form.
  • Dairy and Poultry also score well in the protein tables. Eggs and dairy products provide a good amount of amino acids from low-fat and non-fat sources. A large egg has 6 grams of protein. An ounce of Parmesan cheese has 10 grams of protein and low-fat mozzarella and low fat Swiss cheese finish a close second. A serving of yogurt provides 14 grams of protein.
  • Fish also have good amounts of amino acids with halibut, tuna or salmon being the most intense. A 3oz serving of any of these fish will provide about 22 grams per 3 oz serving.
  • Plant foods The lowest producer of Amino acids are plant based foods but they can still provide enough Amino acids. The best sources for protein are cooked Quinoa and Tofu with about 6 – 8 grams of protein per serving.
  • Beans and nuts, which although not containing the full arsenal of amino acids, do provide significant amounts of protein. Beans provide between 15 and 17 grams of protein per serving. Nuts and seeds provide between 4 and 9 grams of protein per ounce.

2. Eat more foods containing Antioxidants

When the body produces more glucose it also creates extra oxygen, more commonly known as free radical molecules. Antioxidants block these free radicals so your brain doesn’t have to work as hard. Free radicals are thought to be a factor in ageing and certain illnesses through cell damage.

Good antioxidant rich brain foods include;

  • Grapes, especially dark-coloured ones, are loaded with phytochemicals, which are antioxidants that may help protect against cancer and heart disease. Grapes also contain vitamin C and selenium.
  • Blueberries may help protect cells from damage and lower inflammation. Blueberries contain many of the vitamins and minerals known to strengthen the immune system and fight off free radicals.
  • Red Berries, especially raspberries and strawberries, contain ellagic acid, another phytochemical that may help protect against cancer-causing agents in the diet and the environment.
  • Nuts also contain phytochemicals such as resveratrol and plant sterols, which help lower cholesterol as well as fending off free radicals.
  • Dark Green Veggies like broccoli and spinach are high with antioxidant phytochemicals. Leeks, lettuce, and kale provide lutein and quercetin, both strong antioxidants. All of the green veg listed here also contains good amounts of vitamins A, C, and E and are choc full of magnesium and potassium.
  • Tea, with your first mouthful of tea, you get two potent phytochemicals – anthocyanin and pro anthocyanin. Both are antioxidants that help fight inflammation and are thought to block cell damage.

3. Eat More Fatty Acids

Polyunsaturated fatty acids help to improve and strengthen the synapses that relate to memory.

Good sources of fatty acids include;

  • Fish is an excellent source of essential fatty acids. In particular, cold-water fish like Salmon, Herring, and Mackerel.
  • Nuts and seeds also contain good amounts of essential fatty acids in particular Hemp, Flax, Walnuts, and Almonds. Adding a portion of one of these foods to a breakfast cereal is one way to get more fatty acids into your diet if you are vegetarian.

Nuts are one of the most balanced foods on the planet. They offer a good dose of “healthy” fats along with a smaller amount of protein and carbohydrates. Walnuts are the highest in plant omega-3s, for example, while Brazil nuts are best for selenium.

  • Eggs are not only great sources of fatty acids but provide significant amounts of protein.

4. Regulate your Glucose intake

cherries, glucose, healthy, raw fruitMost of the energy the brain uses is taken from Glucose. Glucose is the fuel the brain needs to work well, and the Glucose is converted from fats and sugars.

As Leigh Gibson of Roehampton University said, more recently evolved areas of the brain, such as the frontal cortex are particularly sensitive to falling glucose levels, “When your glucose level drops, the symptom is confused thinking.”

In today’s world of easily available and cheap food we tend to indulge this in over large amounts, which can lead to a spike in glucose uptake. This gives you a sometimes needed large dose of glucose, followed by a quick decline that can cause tiredness and irritation.

However, there are well known health concerns with fats and sugars that should not be underestimated. Problems can start with large sugar and fat intakes found in many fast foods causing blood sugar spikes. This can cause many problems if not monitored and has to be carefully regulated in the care of diabetes.

The gylcemic index ranks foodstuffs according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Pretzels are high on the index, because they cause blood sugar to rise very quickly. Raw carrots, by comparison, have a low gylcemic ranking.

Carbohydrates in lower gylcemic food are broken into glucose molecules more slowly, thereby providing a steadier supply of energy to the brain. Low GI meals also have the ability to best satiate hunger as well.

Ideally a regular intake of glucose will help the brain function properly, so it should be added in small doses regularly through the day.

Glucose is a simple sugar and an important energy source for our body. Most complex sugars and carbohydrates get broken down into glucose, so it is not necessary to consume glucose directly.

Good sources of glucose include;

Dried Fruits

  • Pitted Prunes (44g)
  • Dried Apricots (43g)
  • Raisins (40g)
  • Figs (34g)
  • Dates (29g)

Raw Fruit

  • Bananas (7.5g), per serving
  • Blueberries (7.2g), per serving
  • Cherries (9.1g), per serving
  • Grapes Up to 7.2% Glucose in 10 grapes (49g)
  • Plums (8.4g), per serving

Fruit Juice per 16oz serving

  • Grape Juice (32g)
  • Orange Juice (34g)
  • Pomegranate Juice (31g)
  • Pineapple Juice (19g)
  • Sweetened Cranberry Juice (19g)

Sweeteners High in Glucose (grams per tablespoon)

  • Honey 1 tbsp (21g)
  • Agave (2.6g)
  • Molasses (1.9g)

Energy and Cereal Bars

  • 1 bar (68g)

5. Drink more water!

water, h2o, drink

Although water is not technically a food, it is so important to brain health we had to mention it. This is because, one very common problem that is often ignored is dehydration.

Just as the mind and body need all of the above nutrients, it always needs water.

Dehydration will quickly dull the brain and body causing irritation and tiredness that is sometimes mistaken for hunger.

Drinking a glass of water regularly is an easy remedy for dehydration problems, plus you can always infuse it with fruit for a less bland taste.

Brain Foods: In conclusion

The brain needs Goldilocks sized portions of energy: not too much, not too little. It is best with brain health to have a little of what it needs often, and not to starve it of the chemicals it needs.

To optimise brain power, Michael Green of Aston University in England suggests one tactic would be “more frequent but smaller meals.” The brain works best with about 25 grams of glucose circulating in the blood stream – about the amount found in a banana.

By combining some of these foods in our diet and keeping hydrated, we can help our bodies and brain enjoy better health with less fatigue. It seems that when it comes to feeding our brains, we really are what we eat.

This means that a good balanced diet mixed with exercise is one of the best ways to achieve health for both your mind and your body.

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