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Food for Thought

In a speech at a conference on aging, prominent neuroanatomist Marion Diamond gave five basic factors for “successful aging” of the brain. The first and most important in her opinion is diet followed by regular exercise. The other three are mental challenge, new pursuits, and human bonding.

What you eat doesn’t just affect how you look and how your body feels; it also affects the way you think. Even your mood can be influenced by what you eat. Here is what research currently indicates is good and bad for your brain.

Smart and dumb fat
Fat may be a bad word for many people, but without it, you wouldn’t have much of a brain. Your nerve cells are covered with a membrane made from fatty acids.

The most important type of fat for a healthy brain is omega-3 fatty acid, particularly DHA (the most abundant fat in the brain). Brain-damaged rats recover faster when fed a diet rich in omega-3. Researchers think omega-3 may stimulate nerve cells to produce more BDNF, a protein that protects and promotes nerve cell growth. Regular aerobic exercise does the same thing. Rats that were fed diets deficient in DHA had half the BDNF of rats fed a healthier diet.

The popular belief that fish is brain food is based on truth because fatty cold-water fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel, and sardines are an abundant source of omega-3. Nutritionists recommend eating three ounces or 100 grams of fatty fish twice a week to supply your brain with the omega-3 it needs. Small amounts of this essential fatty acid are found in walnuts, flaxseed, seaweed, and green leafy vegetables.

Omega-6 from vegetable oil (corn, soy, sunflower) is necessary for brain health but too much of this type of fat can be detrimental. The ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 should be 1:1 but a Western diet (high-fat and high-sugar) has been found to be as high as 1:20.

The protective myelin sheath that surrounds the axon of nerve cells speeds up the conduction of electrical impulses. It is made of 30% protein and 70% fat, mostly oleic acid, which is found in breast milk, olive oil, avocados, and nuts like almonds, pecans, macadamias, and peanuts.

The worst possible type of fat for the brain in trans-fat, created from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. This is the type of fat that can be found in processed food like cookies, doughnuts, crackers, and snack food like chips and French fries. A French study showed that a diet high in trans-fat causes the myelin to become infiltrated with this destructive fat and changes the way electrical impulses (translation: your thoughts) are conducted. Scientists also believe that trans-fat weakens the structure of nerve cells, which may lead to a lower resistance to the stress of modern life.

Dumb and dumber
A high-fat and high-sugar diet is a “dumb and dumber diet”. Lab mice fed a diet of 39% fat (lard and corn oil) and 40% refined sugar had lower amounts of BDNF than those fed a healthy diet and they performed significantly poorly in maze tests.

Brain researchers Robert Friedland and Grace Petot told WebMD.com that both a high-fat and extremely low-fat diet are not good for the brain. In their study of people with the Alzheimer’s gene, those who ate a high-fat diet in their 40’s were seven times more likely to get the condition in their 70’s than those who didn’t have the gene. However, those who ate a moderate-fat diet (25 to 30%) reduced their risk to four and a half times.

Brainy carbs
Glucose is your brain’s fuel. It is made from the carbohydrates you eat. But not just any type of carbohydrate will do. High-fiber carbs from whole grains are the best because they slowly release energy and do not spike up blood sugar levels sharply. It has been found that a rush of glucose from eating refined carbs or sugary food slows down thinking. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why but it may have something to do with the way body has to react to large amounts of sugar.

To keep your brain’s glucose supply steady, eat breakfast and a mid-afternoon snack of whole grains, protein, and high fiber fruits and vegetables. Skipping breakfast or eating a breakfast high in refined sugar and flour will lead to poor performance at the office or in school.

Bright rainbow
Eating the colors of the fruit and vegetable rainbow can help you reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who ate the most dietary antioxidants had 70% less of the two conditions. The study recommends 8 to 9 servings (half a cup = one serving) daily for optimum brain protection.

Friedland and Petot also say that eating too much meat is not good for your brain, mainly because a meat-rich diet has little room for the minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables.

Spice up your mind
Curcurmin, the substance that gives curry made with the spice turmeric its yellow color, has been found to have brain-protective qualities. According to Science News Online, mice bred to develop Alzheimer’s were less susceptible when given a diet equivalent to the amount of curry a person in India typically eats each day. Researchers half-jokingly suggest that fish curry may just turn out to be the best dish for your brain.

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