We often hear about how certain foods can fuel performance, boost energy, improve sleep and spark weight loss — but what about sharpening our concentration or protecting our brain during the aging process?
As it turns out, solid nutritional choices can have a significant effect on your cognition, according to neuroscientist and nutritionist Lisa Mosconi, PhD, author of “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power” and founder of the Nutrition & Brain Fitness Lab at New York University.
“What has gone unnoticed until now is the discovery of how, of all the organs in our body, the brain is the one most easily damaged by a poor diet,” she notes. “From its very architecture to its ability to perform, everything in the brain calls out for the proper food.”
THE FOOD-BRAIN CONNECTION
When we eat, the nutrients in those foods are broken down and shuttled throughout the body, including up to the brain — which uses the nutrients to replenish its depleted energy, as well as activate cellular reactions and replace brain tissue, says Dr. Mosconi.
Proteins from meat and fish, for example, are broken down into amino acids that form the basis of brain cells. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains provide important carbohydrates such as glucose, giving the brain a much-needed energy boost. Healthy fats are broken down into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that support our immune system, Dr. Mosconi notes, and that shields our brains from damage and disease.
She adds that when looking at brain scans of people who follow a typically Western-type diet of fast foods, processed meats, ample dairy, refined sweets and sodas, many show signs of brain atrophy, an indicator of neuronal loss.
Basically, that means your brain shrinks. When that happens, you’re at a much higher risk for both major and minor cognitive issues, from everyday “brain fog” to dementia.
“Findings such as these have led many experts to see diet as being as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” states Dr. Mosconi.
WHAT TO CHOOSE
Even if you’ve been on the Western-type diet for most, if not all, of your life, there’s good news: Your brain will respond to big-time nutrition changes. A good starting point, says Dr. Mosconi, is to grab your water bottle.
As little as a 3–4% decrease in water intake will almost immediately affect the brain’s fluid balance, she says. That can cause issues like fatigue, brain fog, reduced energy, headaches and mood swings. The brain is made of almost 80% water, and brain cells require a balance of water and electrolytes for the cells to function properly. That’s just one more reason to stick to that “drink more water” resolution.
Next up is healthy fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, found mainly in nuts, seeds and fatty fish like salmon. This type of fat is anti-inflammatory, Dr. Mosconi says, whereas some other types of fat, like omega-6s found in foods like bacon and canola oil, are pro-inflammatory.
For protein options, she recommends integrating more protein-rich foods with tryptophan, an essential amino acid that usually gets brought up around Thanksgiving as the culprit that makes you sleepy after a turkey dinner. But turkey is actually fairly low in the substance, and tryptophan isn’t the Ambien substitute it’s been reported to be. Instead, this amino acid is necessary for production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a big role in sleep, appetite regulation and mood.
Tryptophan-packed choices include chia seeds, wheat, oats, spirulina and sesame and pumpkin seeds. Dr. Mosconi also recommends yogurt, but only if it’s the organic, plain, tart kind that’s not saturated with sweeteners.
The other major foods to incorporate are, not surprisingly, fruits and vegetables. These contain anti-inflammatory compounds as well as antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and, honestly, they are the superheroes out to save your brain from destruction.
“These are not ordinary foods,” says Dr. Mosconi. “These are superfoods, which should be routinely added to our diets, no matter our age.”
WEIGHT LOSS FOR BETTER THINKING
Switching to the kind of brain-healthy diet Dr. Mosconi recommends may lead to weight loss as well as clearer thinking. When that happens, it’s a win-win for your mind and body.
That’s because obesity is as tough on your brain as it is on your waistline, according to Dr. Rocco Monto, author of “The Fountain: A Doctor’s Prescription to Make 60 the new 30.” He notes that considerable excess weight can cause insulin resistance, which may not only lead to diabetes, but also increases inflammation throughout your system, including your brain.
“Obesity can fry your motherboard,” he notes. “High caloric intake and obesity have been associated with dementia, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Focusing on healthy options — and loading up on those veggies — can be beneficial for reducing these risks since a brain-friendly diet is also filled with anti-inflammatory foods.
In general, what benefits your mind will also be good for your body. Brain-boosting choices like healthy fats and quality protein as well as fruits and vegetables can go a long way toward keeping your brain sharp and your body running strong.