Feed Your Brain

What foods work when it comes to optimum brain health

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

We've heard it all before: fish is brain food; coffee helps you concentrate; be sure to eat a balanced breakfast. But is there any scientific foundation for these age-old maxims and adages?

Caffeine's Stimulating Effects

Well, yes. And no. Above all, moderation is key -- especially where sugar and caffeine are concerned. But the truth is, in small amounts, caffeine (found in coffee, chocolate, energy drinks and some medications) can give you an added energy boost, which, in turn, affects concentration in the short term. Too much caffeine can leave you jittery, uncomfortable and elevate blood pressure, though.

Sugar Rush

Glucose, which is metabolized from the sugars and carbohydrates you eat, acts as the brain's preferred fuel source. A glass of something sweet can increase mental ability in the short term. Again, though, too much sugar can actually impair your memory -- along with the rest of your body -- by elevating blood-sugar levels and adding excess weight.

Don't Skip Breakfast

When Mom told you breakfast is the most important meal of the day, she was right. A recent study suggests students who eat breakfast tend to perform considerably better than those who skip the morning meal. You can add these breakfast items to your brain-fuel list: high-fiber whole grains, dairy, and fruits. Just go easy. Researchers also found that a high-calorie breakfast actually hinders concentration.

Fish Really is Brain Food

Fish, filled with omega 3 fatty acids essential for brain function and development, also bolsters heart health. In fact, higher intakes of dietary omega 3 fatty acids are associated with lower dementia and stroke risks, lessened mental decline and may even enhance memory as we get older. Two servings a week should do the trick.

Blueberry's Bountiful Benefits

Swap out the OJ for some blueberry juice as blueberries may help protect the brain from oxidative stress and lessen the effects of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. Blueberries have also been shown to improve learning capacity and motor skills in aging rats.

"Moderate-term blueberry supplementation can confer neurocognitive benefit," said researcher Robert Krikorian of the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, who studied blueberries' effect on the aging rodents.

Chocolate Lovers, Rejoice!

Well, dark-chocolate lovers, that is. The yummy treat has powerful antioxidant properties and as well as caffeine. About an ounce a day should suffice. Add some nuts and seeds to make a trail mix for added vitamin E benefits, which is associated with less cognitive decline as you age.

Tastier, Healthier Sandwiches

Try adding avocados and using whole-grain bread for your next sandwich. The heart and brain rely on healthy blood flow, and eating a diet high in whole grains and fruits like avocados reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering unhealthy cholesterol levels.

You Are What You Eat

Recent research from Lund University has shown that a diet high in antioxidants, low-GI foods (slow-release carbohydrates), omega fatty acids, whole grains, probiotics and viscous dairy fiber results in an abundance of brain- and heart-enhancing functions by lowering bad cholesterol, blood lipids (fats), blood pressure and a risk marker for blood clots. Some of the foods included in the study of healthy individuals include: oily fish, barley, soy protein, blueberries, almonds, cinnamon, vinegar and whole-grain bread.

"The results have exceeded our expectations," said Inger Björck, professor of food-related nutrition at Lund University and head of the University's Antidiabetic Food Centre. "I would like to claim that there has been no previous study with similar effects on healthy subjects."

Moderation is Key

So, there you have it. Eat up and enjoy these delicious food combos to benefit your mind as well as body. Just be sure to keep serving sizes in check. Eating too much of anything can result in diminished concentration and negative health effects.

Review Date: 
December 20, 2010