Nutrition for Cognition
It’s not news that you need food for energy and muscle repair. But what you might not realize is that certain foods can help to boost your memory, improve your mood, and provide protection against age-related cognitive diseases. As any organ in your body requires nutrients for growth and maintenance, your brain is no exception. In fact, at rest your brain uses somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of your energy intake, and even more when you’re problem solving. Now do you understand why it can be difficult to concentrate when you skip a meal? You should, however, be smart about the foods you choose to fuel your brain, because when it comes to cognition, not all calories are created equal. Now let me give you some food for thought… literally.
Dark berries: Yep – this means blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, acai berries, etc. These guys get their dark skin from a class of phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which are potent antioxidants. Remember, antioxidants are molecules found in foods that inhibit cell damage. As you age, your cells inevitably become damaged by means of normal metabolic activity. Think about it like this – when you buy a new computer, it works smoothly at high speed. As you download more programs, leave windows open, and perhaps spill the occasional beverage on your keyboard (guilty), it slows down and becomes less efficient. Well, the same goes for your brain. Not to mention, your brain is particularly susceptible to oxidative injury thanks to its demanding metabolic rate. This is why it is important to get those antioxidant foods into your diet – to combat cell damage and protect your neurons! Oh, and I’m talking a minimum of 5 servings of ½ cup fruits and vegetables per day.
Nuts: Walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews… I think you get the picture. I’m going to piggyback off of the antioxidant concept discussed above for a moment. Nuts are a major source of vitamin E, also a potent antioxidant that, according to research, presents promising agents for both prevention and treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Worldwide, more than 26 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and if measures aren’t taken to prevent or delay its onset, the number of people affected is anticipated to double over the next 40 years. Try making a doggy bag of homemade trail mix to bring to work with you and, if you want to go nuts, throw in some dark chocolate for an added boost of antioxidants.
Hemp, flax & chia seeds: Perhaps you have been wondering why it has recently become trendy to drink chia-infused beverages, add flaxseeds to your morning oatmeal, or swap cow’s milk for hemp milk in your smoothie. Well here’s a good reason – these seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. And why do we need omega-3s? They are an essential fatty acid (EFA), meaning our bodies cannot synthesize them and we must get adequate amounts from our diets. EFA’s are important for nervous system, vision, immune and inflammatory function. A number of studies have shown that higher dietary intakes of omega-3’s are associated with lower risk of dementia and slower age-related cognitive decline. Furthermore, our brains are made up of about 60 percent fat, so it is imperative that we consume EFA’s to provide our brains with adequate reserves.
Leafy greens: As if you need another reason to include greens in your diet. Aside from the fiber and antioxidant content, green leafy vegetables like spinach and turnip greens are sources of B vitamins. These vitamins are major players when it comes to brain function, and in fact, low levels of B vitamins have been associated with learning and memory dysfunction. Other dietary sources of these guys include dried beans, peas, bell peppers, garlic and bananas.
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, why not just take a supplement?” and here comes my two cents. Science is constantly evolving and it can be difficult to make definitive and safe health recommendations based on associations from research. Supplements tend to be synthetic, concentrated forms of a vitamin or mineral and can have negative effects if you take too much. On the contrary, it is very difficult to overdose on vitamins when you’re eating real, whole foods. Plus, when you eat whole foods you are simultaneously benefitting from the synergistic effect of the many vitamins, minerals, antioxidant compounds, and fiber found naturally in the food – an advantage you otherwise miss out on when you take a supplement.
Now I hope you’ve made up your mind to include these brain boosting bites into your diet. Bet you never knew nutrition was so important for cognition!
Leah Silberman is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist practicing in New York City. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she graduated with a B.S. in dietetics. Leah subsequently went on to receive her master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. Her goal is to help others create healthier dietary habits that are pragmatic for their individual lifestyles. She strongly believes that the first step in making dietary changes that actually
, is to understand the fundamental relationship between food, nutrition and health.