Bad memory? Sluggish brain? Reactions of a tortoise? You could be eating the wrong foods. For years, the workings of our brains have been a mystery – not just to wives and girlfriends. But now scientists are unravelling how diet and nutrition can impact on the health and function of our most complex organ.
“The brain is mainly fat so it’s not surprising that the balance of dietary fats influences mental performance”, says Dr Tom Gilhooly of the Centre for Nutritional Studies who has developed a new blood test for omega-3s – The Ideal Omega Test.
Not only that, the brain is a veritable glutton when it comes to carbs. Despite taking up only 2% of our body, the brain consumes more than 50% of our daily glucose. This means that the amount, type and timing of carbohydrates can affect how our grey matter behaves. Certain vitamins, minerals and plant substances also have a role in nourishing our noggins, so read on to start eating for peak mental performance.
It’s official. Foods rich in zinc are great for the brain. That’s the verdict of the ultra-tough European Food Safety Agency which recently awarded a cognitive function claim to zinc. The mineral supports the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps us to remember where we are going and why! Crab is one of the richest sources, delivering more than third of your daily zinc per portion.
Memory could be boosted by a nutrient found in soya which mimics the female hormone, oestrogen. Women apparently have the upper hand in remembering anniversaries because oestrogen interacts with key brain cells. However, a study found that men who took soya isoflavone pills for 6 weeks significantly improved their memory. Steal a march on the girls by slugging a glass of soya milk.
Eating omega-3s for mental function is a no-brainer but now another fishy nutrient, selenium, has been found to benefit mood, as well as boosting sperm health. A UK study showed that taking a daily supplement of selenium significantly improved mood and reduced anxiety. Tuna, sardines and nuts are all excellent sources.
With British berry season approaching, it’s the right time to treat your grey cells to one of nature’s finest antioxidants, vitamin C. According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, men with a high intake of antioxidant-rich fruits are less likely to lose their mental faculties as they aged. So chuck a handful of blueberries or strawberries on your breakfast cereal.
The morning cuppa does more than lift your spirits thanks to flavonoids and L-theanine, two plant substances found in tea. A study of more than 2000 Norwegians found that mental performance was superior in those who drank the most tea. “The best effects were seen when four cups a day were consumed”, says The Tea Advisory Panel.
Forget spinach – red meat is the ultimate source of iron, a nutrient associated with optimal IQ. A study in young men found improvements in intelligence and mental performance when iron deficiency was corrected. Since government research shows that nearly 1/5 of UK men have too little dietary iron, it might be worth getting out the barbeque early this year.
If your desk is covered in Post-It notes, swig a glass of Concord grape juice. A new study showed that the ability to remember items on lists improved after 12 weeks of drinking grape juice compared with a control. “Short-term memory was also given a boost,” says lead researcher, Dr. Robert Krikorian from the University of Cincinnati.
Not strictly a food but essential for the brain. Studies show that even a small fluid deficit can impact on alertness, fatigue and even levels of aggression. That makes sense as the brain is 85% water. Top up on the wet stuff by drinking 6-8 glasses a day, or keep a bottle of water on your desk.
Folate is not just for girls. Poor intakes of this vitamin have been linked with apathy, irritability and anxiety. A study published in Public Health Nutrition showed that low folate levels in the blood were associated with negative mood swings. Shift the blues with a large helping of broccoli or peas.
Pack a snack to improve your verbal reasoning, a measure of problem solving and logic. Researchers tested 96 adults who ate either two big meals or four small meals equivalent in calories. Verbal reasoning and mental processing speed were better after the small meals suggesting that grazing beats gorging where logic is concerned.
Fast carbs may be great for refuelling muscles but low GI foods are best for mental focus. Scientists evaluated memory and attention in 40 volunteers after two different breakfasts. The best results were seen after the low GI breakfast because blood glucose levels were maintained for longer. Try a bowl of oats sweetened with honey for a low GI fix.
Long associated with bones, vitamin D is now thought to be essential for a healthy mind. A review published by the Health Supplements Information Service reported that mental decline was twice as likely in adults with low blood levels of vitamin D. Fifteen percent of UK men fall into this category. Oily fish and eggs are rich sources, or you can take a daily multivitamin for insurance.