Our diet is what gives us many of the nutrients that we need to live, including carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals. These first three are used to make energy for our cells. And our brain is an energy sponge. It consumes 20 percent of your body’s energy, despite only making up 2 percent of your total body weight.
Like the rest of our body, the brain is mostly water. The remainder is mostly fat. Fat plays a particularly critical role in brain health. Not the saturated or “trans” fats that you hear about in the media, but healthy fat. The fats found in your brain are primarily polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). These PUFAs play an important role in the function of your brain cells. Most notably, they are involved in communication within and between brain cells.
We truly “are what we eat”.
WHAT SCIENTISTS KNOW:
- Eating high amounts of saturated fats may reduce cognitive performance.
- Eating more nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous vegetables (like cabbage, bok choy, and cauliflower), fruits, and dark and green leafy vegetables and less high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat, and butter can decrease your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 48%.
- Omega-3 fatty acids (like DHA – docosahexaenoic acid, and EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid) are a type of PUFA found in the brain that must be obtained from the foods we eat. There is some evidence that having too little omega-3 fatty acids during brain development can negatively affect intelligence. Also, low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain are linked to brain disorders like depression. In fact, recent clinical trials have shown that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can alleviate some symptoms of depression.
- Antioxidants are critical to brain function because they protect the brain from potentially toxic molecules. Antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables. For example, vitamin E (found in oils, spinach, avocados and beets), and flavonoids (found in citrus fruits and wine) appear to help brain function. They also improve recovery from brain injury and reduce cognitive decline in the elderly.
- Vitamins are also critical to brain function. For example, low levels of a vitamin called folic acid (or vitamin B9, which is found in spinach and orange juice), are associated with depression and other brain disorders. Supplementation with folic acid, on the other hand, may slow age-related learning and memory problems.
Scientists still do not have all of the answers about nutrition and the brain. It is hard to attribute a positive effect to only one food or nutrient. Nonetheless, experts agree that you should consume a balanced diet that includes a good supply of omega-3 fatty acids from fish (and low amounts of saturated fats) as well as fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. A well balanced diet will not only minimize your risk of developing a brain disorder, but it will also reduce your risk of developing other conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes (which happen to be major risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia).
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
You can take control of your brain health. Here are some tips on how to maximize the benefits of nutrition on your brain:
- Eat a well-balanced diet. The sum of your diet, rather than individual foods or nutrients, is more important for maintaining brain health.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables daily and regularly eat fish (like salmon, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids).
- Eat a healthy breakfast. Breakfast will provide your brain with the energy it needs to think – don’t send your children off to school well fed and ignore the fact that you need to ‘feed your brain’ as well.
Celebrate Brain Awareness Week by taking control of your brain health. Eat a healthy breakfast.
With thanks, great ideas contributed by:
- Dr. Richard Bazinet, University of Toronto
- Dr. Carol Greenwood, Baycrest and University of Toronto
- Dr. Brian Ross, Northern Ontario School of Medicine