When we look to fill up our plates, are we driven by hunger, taste or science? If you were to ask most people, I doubt many would answer with “science.”
Often, life blocks our true path to health with stress – whether it is from our family, jobs or lifestyle. But one thing you truly have control over – no matter what stress and challenges you face – is what you put in your mouth.
Food can be many things – aphrodisiac, friend, enabler and necessity. But it can also be a tool, a way to help you function your best and achieve great things. Food has a vast effect on our physiology, neurons, brain and muscles. Why not eat a more optimal way to maximize your brainpower? This is how I look at it – and you can too!
Here is a guide to which foods may be causing you poor mental health, and which foods can help you. There is a very specific, science-backed approach to eating optimally for brain health. And you may be surprised to learn that it involves a lot of fat!
Don’t Go Low-Fat!
First, we must understand that our brain is almost 60% fat. Yes, you read that correctly. And where does this come from? Our diet! This is part of why low-fat diets can be very bad for mental health. Fat is literally fuel for our mitochondria – think of them as your cell’s little energy factories. Some scientific studies even suggest that fat is your mitochondria’s ideal source of fuel!
Lay Off The Sugar
The other reason low-fat diets may not be optimal for mental health is that by eliminating fat, we must automatically increase our carbohydrate intake. This usually translates into lots of sugar. And what has sugar been linked to, in the scientific literature? Among other things, it has been directly linked to dementia! And that study showed that you do not even have to have diabetes in order for excess sugar to be a problem.
Bad news, sweet tooths: Sugar has been directly linked to dementia!
Now that we’ve established that sugar is not an optimal nutrient for brain health, and that fat is ideal, we must dig deeper. As found in the scientific literature, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the predominant structural fatty acid in the central nervous system and its availability is crucial for brain development. This means we should start with foods high in DHA, which is more commonly recognized as an omega-3 fatty acid.
This omega-3 is best found in fish – but not just any fish. One of the key tenets of eating a Paleo diet is to avoid poorly-sourced food (farm-raised, grain-fed, etc.) and opt for wild-caught, organic, grass-fed or pasture-raised food whenever possible. The reason for this isn’t vanity – it is because these sources have better nutritional profiles, especially in important categories like omega-3 fatty acids. While the initial higher price tag may put some people off, think of it as preventative medicine. You are investing in better health – the best investment you can make!
Omega-3s For Brain Health
In multiple scientific trials, omega-3 phospholipids have demonstrated anti-inflammatory activity, as well as lowering C-reactive protein (CRP) levels. Since inflammation in the brain is a big part of neurologic breakdown and degradation, and C-reactive protein is a big indicator of inflammation in the body, we must regard this scientific data seriously.
Eat Eggs, Walnuts And Broccoli!
Besides wild-caught seafood (which is rich in DHA) there are also eggs that are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids. Add walnuts and broccoli to that: two other superstars for brain health!
For a more complete list of omega-3 rich foods, head over here. Note that the list is very rich in fish – so make sure you load up, if you want to maximize your brain’s health. It is also important to note here, that we are avoiding the common foods in the Western diet – which is a key factor in optimizing your brain’s potential via nutrition.
When In Doubt, Eat More Fat
Since we have clearly established that sugar is not ideal for brain health, we must now delve back into the other energy-dense macronutrient – fat. We went over omega-3 fatty acids, but what other sources of fat are optimal for brain health? Extra virgin olive oil has been studied to be beneficial for cognitive health, so make sure you drizzle it over your salads and food on a regular basis!
This helps to explain the robust health experienced by those who consume the Mediterranean diet – which is very rich in extra virgin olive oil. Coconut oil is another great source of fat for your brain, with some studies showing early promise.
Choose The Right Carbs
Okay, so we’ve covered some good sources of fat for your brain, but what about carbs? All carbohydrates can’t be bad, right? Certainly not, and most of America just tends to focus on the wrong ones. Avoid high-glycemic carbohydrates (like bread, candy, pizza, etc.) and opt instead for vegetables! A diet rich in vegetables has been positively linked to cognitive function, and this is no accident. Plant polyphenols act as important antioxidants in the human body and brain, and we must recall that antioxidants are what help our cells protect against damage from free radicals. What does this mean in layman’s terms? Vegetables can help slow down the aging process.
Now when we make this claim, we must remember that eating vegetables isn’t a cure-all for aging, it is simply a way to not age as fast as one otherwise might, if you were to consume a processed food-heavy diet. Spinach, broccoli and kale are three of the best vegetables for brain and overall health, so make sure to regularly include them in your diet.
Get Enough Selenium
Many researchers have linked selenium (a trace mineral) to improved mental cognition. Studies show that lower levels of lifetime selenium relate directly to lower levels of cognitive functioning. Brazil nuts are extremely rich in selenium, and only a few are needed per day. Other examples of great vegetable sources of selenium include, but are not limited to: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach and asparagus.
Satisfy Yourself With Spinach
And now, a short detour into a love letter for spinach – possibly the single best vegetable you can be eating. Spinach has so many beneficial, nutritious compounds! One group of important lipids found in spinach is the glycoglycerolipids. In many plants, glycoglycerolipids are the fat-related molecules. The glycoglycerolipids help to protect the lining of the gut from damage.
This damage is commonly referred to as gut permeability, and this condition is routinely linked to autoimmune disorders. Spinach will help protect people from foods that may be gut-irritating, as well as enzymes like lysozyme (found in eggs) that try to cross the gut lining and move into the bloodstream (part of the autoimmune reaction).
Spinach is the single best vegetable you can eat.
Another interesting compound found in spinach is a group of carotenoids. Carotenoids give many foods their color, and sometimes you can even pick out the type of nutrient found within a food based solely on its outside color. Some of the carotenoids found within spinach are being studied for their potential cancer-protective effects. One such group is known as epoxyxanthophylls. Ultimately what’s important to remember is just to load up on spinach at lunchtime!
Fruit And Your Brain
Besides vegetables, fruit has been scientifically studied to help your brain – just don’t go overboard, as fruit is also high in sugar. Multiple studies back up the importance of fruit as potentially preventing both disease and poor health, so be sure to include antioxidant-rich blueberries in your diet regularly.
How Protein Helps You
Interestingly, protein has also been shown to be beneficial for your brain, causing positive changes in your brain’s likelihood to overeat or to make poor food choices. Science does seem to support those people who commonly consume vegetables and protein first at meals – leaving little room for dessert or other sugar-rich treats.
Avoid The Less Healthy Choices
While we have gone into some scientific specifics thus far, we must take the 30,000-foot view here, and realize that a Paleo diet in any capacity will be beneficial for your brain’s health. While the tips listed in this article will help you to truly maximize your brain’s potential; avoiding gluten, processed food and alcohol are three of the best steps to clear out the fog in your brain.
(Read: The Paleo Diet 101)
In The End
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the science and forget the basics. But you need to start from where you are. If you are currently living off of bagels, Pop-Tarts and donuts – just focus on consuming a Paleo diet. Dropping those foods can be very difficult, so go slow and take it one step at a time. Since more than one-third of America is now overweight, it is important to focus on the simple steps we can take first, rather than get discouraged because we feel so far away from where we want to be. You can do it, and your brain will thank you for it!