The old saying goes, "You are what you eat," and this adage holds true for the nerve center of the body, the brain. If we're lacking certain nutrients, or if we don't eat enough, our brains will suffer — and so will our performance. Recent research has made it clearer than ever that the human diet and the human brain are inextricably linked, so you might want to think twice about what crosses your lips.
Like all other organs in the body, the brain needs energy. When we eat a meal, enzymes in our digestive system break down food into fat, carbohydrates and protein, which are transported via the bloodstream to individual cells. Brain cells, or neurons, are incapable of converting fat and protein into glucose and require a constant supply of pure glucose (found readily in carbohydrates) to function. Instead of pure sugar and refined, white carbohydrates, which provide a quick zap of energy, go for whole grains, which take longer to digest and provide a slow and steady supply of glucose for the brain.
If you've ever tried a low-carbohydrate diet or fasted for prolonged periods of time, you probably experienced the effects of insufficient glucose to the brain — lethargy, brain fog, irritability, trembling, intense hunger, sweating, palpitations and headaches. These effects of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can occur from skipping even one meal or from eating your meals too far apart.
"When you get hypoglycemic, you feel bad mentally and physically," says Janet Starkey, a nutritionist at the VCU Health System Nutrition Clinic. And yes, breakfast is still the most important meal of the day, she notes. "You should eat a decent breakfast that is not high in sugar. If too much is consumed, you end up with a roller coaster of blood sugars that actually inhibit good thought processes and cause you to eat more throughout the day, putting large glucose loads on the brain" — not to mention pounds on the body. Starkey suggests eating a balanced breakfast of a lean protein source paired with a whole grain and some fresh fruit, like whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and sliced cantaloupe.
In addition to glucose, adequate protein consumption is important for brain health. "Protein helps to make neurotransmitters," says Susan Hardwicke, founder of VABION (Virginia Bio Nutrients), a Richmond-based company that develops nutraceuticals geared toward brain performance. Include a source of glucose and lean protein in every meal, such as yogurt and a banana, peanut butter on an apple, or whole-grain cereal and nuts.
For some, the caffeine in a daily cup of coffee can increase alertness and concentration, relieve fatigue and speed up reaction time, while others respond to caffeine with jitters, increased anxiety and headaches. If you're among the latter group, you'll want to reconsider any caffeine intake. For those who consume caffeine without a problem, make sure your typical breakfast isn't just coffee. Everything in moderation: Starkey notes that the upper limit of coffee for brain health is about five eight-ounce cups per day.
High-quality fats, such as poly- and monounsaturated fats, promote a healthy heart and brain. The best of these high-quality fats are the omega-3s, also known to reduce your risk for cancer. Good sources of omega-3s include ground flaxseeds, walnuts, fatty fish (salmon, lake trout, mackerel, albacore tuna), soybeans and canola oil. "The No. 1 thing a person can do [to improve brain health] is to eat fatty fish," says Hardwicke.
Which came first — the chicken or the egg? Lucky for the brain, it doesn't matter: "Both chicken and eggs are good sources of choline, which can improve memory, especially in those with a memory deficit," says Hardwicke. Other rich sources of choline include wheat germ, dried soybeans and pork.
B vitamins can benefit the brain by helping with cell communication, blood circulation and decreased effects of aging. You'll find vitamin B in leafy greens, salmon, yogurt, tofu, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus and celery.
"Calcium and magnesium provide the electrical charge needed for brain cells to communicate. They can also have a calming effect on the brain," says Hardwicke. Choose low-fat or nonfat dairy products or opt for green, leafy vegetables for a healthy dose of calcium. Magnesium is found in halibut, nuts, soybeans, leafy greens, enriched cereals or grains, even dark chocolate. But don't go overboard, as chocolate is also high in brain-busting saturated fat.
Fortunately, the experts' recommendations for heart health and overall sound nutrition apply to brain health as well. Daily exercise, social engagement and ongoing learning will also promote brain wellness. "And keep your waistline in check," Starkey says. "Those with larger waistlines may be at higher risk for Alzheimer's." Next time you sit down to a meal, think of your selections primarily as food for the brain — and fuel up appropriately.