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Food can work wonders on mood, as anyone who’s ever been “hangry” can confirm. But it also has longer-term effects on your brain health. In her new book, past University of Toronto assistant professor Aileen Burford-Mason makes the case that food affects our sleep, performance, and yes, mood — but it can also stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia. Here are five things we learned from her illuminating how-to on feeding the brain.

1. Think bigger than the “five-a-day” rule

The idea that adults need five servings of fruits or vegetables a day is a straight-up myth — that’s only enough for children between the ages four and eight. Adults need 10 servings (a baseball-sized piece of fruit, or half a cup of chopped vegetables, or a cup of of leafy greens). A 12-year study from the United Kingdom found that vegetables are up to four times more protective than fruit against the risk of any heart disease, cancer, brain- and degenerative diseases. It’s not as daunting as it seems, writes Burford-Mason. Every daily increase over the five-a-day serving increases your health benefits.

2. Feeling stressed? Try magnesium

Chances are you’re not getting enough magnesium — which is essential to managing stress response — from your diet. Magnesium deficiency has been shown to increase anxiety. In Canada, at least 40 percent of young adults aren’t getting enough magnesium, and nearly 70 percent of elderly Canadians aren’t meeting the requirement. Magnesium also works with calcium to help muscles function. When there’s not enough magnesium, our muscles contract and we feel tense. When there is enough, we relax. Ever felt relaxed after an Epsom salt bath? That’s because Epsom salts are magnesium sulphate. Our bodies tense up when we’re stressed because our stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, deplete our magnesium stores. The brain sends a signal to the body to stay on high alert, which triggers the “fight-or-flight” response to kick in. Some of the best food sources for magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, salmon, and whole grains such as high-bran cereals.

3. The brain is fatty

It’s mostly fat, in fact — about 60 percent (of a specific kind of fat). Brain cells require omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which help prevent many chronic diseases associated with aging, like heart disease and dementia. Both are also essential, meaning the body cannot produce them on its own and must get them from food. There should be a roughly equal ratio between omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Foods rich in omega-3 fats include eggs, soybeans, tofu, flaxseed oil, walnuts and fatty fish like salmon, trout and mackerel. Foods rich in omega-6 fats include nuts, seeds, soybeans, corn, sunflower oil, meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

4. Coffee will wake you up, but don’t rely on it to get your best work done

Caffeine is a brain stimulant that increases attention and improves psychomotor skills, such as driving or playing an instrument. But don’t skip breakfast — coffee alone will only get you so far. Burford-Mason compares coffee to pushing a car that’s out of gas— the caffeine will kick-start the brain and give you the occasional shove to get rolling for a bit, but ultimately you can’t function without fuel, which is food.

5. The best diet for your brain is, thankfully, easy to remember

There are only 15 foods you need to memorize — 10 that are considered healthy and five it’s recommended you avoid. The MIND diet combines elements of the DASH diet (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet to create an eating pattern that is easy to follow. In a 2015 study of more than 900 elderly participants, researchers found that people who followed the MIND diet had less cognitive decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. While Burford-Mason cautions that the diet doesn’t distinguish levels of processed foods, she says this framework for eating is your best bet for brain health:

Foods to eat

  1. Green leafy vegetables: one salad a day
  2. Other vegetables: one serving a day
  3. Nuts: one serving a day
  4. Berries: two or more servings a week; blueberries and strawberries preferred
  5. Beans: three to four servings a week
  6. Whole grains: three servings a day
  7. Fish: one or more servings a week
  8. Poultry: at least two servings a week
  9. Olive oil: this should be your primary oil
  10. Wine: one glass a day

Foods to avoid

  1. Red meats: eat as little as possible 
  2. Butter: no more than one tablespoon a day
  3. Cheese: no more than one serving a week
  4. Pastries and sweets: avoid
  5. Fried or fast food: no more than one serving a week

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