Like most moms out there, I have always tried to make sensible food choices for my family. I keep junk food to a minimum, limit the amount of fast food we eat and try to include plenty of fruits and vegetables in our diets. Although I’m not always as diligent as I should be, I have really buckled down in the past year, mostly as a result of article research. With nutrition affecting so many health issues, I decided to clean up my pantry. I expected everyone’s overall health to improve, and it did! I didn’t necessarily expect my daughter’s grades to go up and her attention span to improve, but it happened. Coincidence? Perhaps. But it sure made me wonder: are there foods we can eat to maximize our mental acuity?
The idea that nutrition plays a role in cognitive (brain) function isn’t exactly a new one. For decades, scientists considered the connection between nutrition and cognitive function to be fairly straightforward. From conception to around age two is a critical period for intellectual development, when the brain grows to approximately 80% of its adult size. It was thought that poor nutrition during this time period could lead to structural malformations in the brain, thus affecting cognitive development. Gradually, scientists began to realize that this model was too simplistic, and that the emphasis on the first two years of life was inadequate. In fact, nutrition can affect cognitive processing throughout a person’s life.
Studies have shown that a diet rich in antioxidants can improve cognitive function by improving transmissions between the synapses. Colorful foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables tend to have higher antioxidant content. Here is a breakdown of some of the best choices:
- Blueberries can improve learning capacity and motor skills, and studies show that eating them regularly may help reduce the risk of developing dementia.
- Tea is packed with powerful antioxidants, and has been shown to help boost immunity and increase blood flow, which is key to good brain function.
- Dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants and contains natural stimulants that boost concentration and focus. Stick with a quality dark chocolate containing at least 70% cocoa.
Essential Fatty Acids
Our brain cells are comprised of approximately 60% fat, and as such, the types of fat we consume play a key role in the development and maintenance of a healthy brain. Essential fatty acids, namely Omega-3 and Omega-6, are often lacking in American diets, because of our society’s tendency to rely on “convenient” processed foods containing hydrogenated fats.
Pharmacist Dave Mason is in the process of completing his certification in Clinical Nutrition, and believes these fatty acids are essential for good health. “Omega-3s are a type of good fat that’s necessary for so many reasons. They promote a healthy immune system, are required for visual function, and help stimulate the metabolism. They also help with joint support and adrenal function, and people who don’t have enough of it in their diets are going to feel those effects.” Foods such as cold water fish, avocadoes, and flax seed oil are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Supplementing Your Mind
While most agree that dietary intake is the most effective way of obtaining these brain-healthy nutrients, moms out there know how challenging it can be to get those five to seven servings of fruits and veggies into our kids, let alone get them to eat salmon. Mason generally advises patients to “do your best, and then make up the difference with a quality supplement. There are some great antioxidant formulas out there that can boost those levels.” He strongly advises patients to reduce the amount of processed foods in their diet, and choose organic foods whenever possible. “Studies suggest that the added chemicals and hormones can negatively affect cognitive function.” A father of four, he jokes, “I want my kids’ brains to be as clean as possible!”
With regard to Omega-3 supplements, Mason advises patients to read labels carefully. A good Omega-3 supplement should contain an approximate 2:1 ratio of EPA and DHA from cold water fish. “With fish oil supplements, patients tend to get what they pay for. Inferior supplements may include filler fish oils that can upset the digestive system, and may even be polluted by harmful metals such as mercury.” Many quality fish oil supplements are enteric-coated to avoid a fishy aftertaste.
Having seen the positive impact of better nutrition in my own children, you can rest assured I will be adding even more of these brain-healthy foods into our diet. Consider including additional antioxidants and essential fatty acids in your own family’s menu—it just might be the smartest dietary choice you ever make!
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions.