June 19, 2010

Food for Thought (Literally)

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:17 PM by lanaholt

By Joe Wilkes

Most of us make most of our eating decisions based on how they’re going to make our bodies look. But it’s worth remembering that our diets affect how our heads operate, too. Brain function depends on an enormously complex system of chemicals and electrical impulses, and the fuel we put into our systems can make a big difference on how we process our information, our moods, and our energy levels. The good news is that what’s good for our heads is also good for our tails.

How our brains work (basically)

This isn’t a medical journal, but we’ll try to broadly discuss what causes some of our major brain functions (or malfunctions). Brain cells communicate with each other through a series of chemical reactions triggered by neurotransmitters. Some of the major neurotransmitters are catecholamines like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which speed up brain reaction time, and other neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which cause the brain to relax. Amino acids like tryptophan (found in seafood, soy, meat, eggs, and dairy) can help trigger relaxation, while other amino acids like tyrosine (found in chocolate, beans, nuts, and seeds) can rev things up. So by introducing food and beverages to the mix, you can either excite or inhibit these processes. In essence, if you play your diet cards right, your refrigerator can be as effective as your local pharmacist or bartender.


Brain cell membranes rely heavily on fatty acids, especially omega-3s . It’s no coincidence that fish is called “brain food”; the highest, healthiest levels of omega-3s are found in oily fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, and herring. Other good sources include canola, walnut, and extra-virgin olive oils; flaxseed; fresh coconut; nuts; seeds; and avocados. Some studies have shown that upping the omega-3 levels in your diet might help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s in old age. It’s still important to remember that while some are healthy, all fats are highly caloric and should be consumed in moderation. As with any food group, too much isn’t a good thing. Eating too much of anything can cause unhealthy insulin responses, which can end up doing more harm than good.


Carbs can have the most immediate, noticeable effect on your brain function. In fact, about 20 percent of your daily carbohydrate supply goes solely toward brain function. But the type of carb greatly affects the response. Ask anyone who gives their toddler a juice drink and watches them spin out of control. Just like a hit of sugar can give your body a jolt of energy, it also gives your brain a jolt. But watch out for when the sugar gives out. It may seem like a good idea to swig a Coke before that big test; but while the sugar may give you an initial rush, the following crash can be devastating.

However, carbs aren’t the enemy. They are a great source of tryptophan, which affects the brain’s serotonin levels—which can then help regulate blood pressure, sleep, and appetite. Carbs are great fuel for the brain, but it’s better to get them from complex carbohydrate sources like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes with high fiber contents. The fiber causes you to absorb the energy more slowly and steadily, avoiding the peaks and valleys of many processed snacks. It’s one of the reasons that dessert is best saved for after meals instead of between meals. When you have low-glycemic food, like meat and vegetables, in your stomach, dessert will have less of a roller-coaster effect on your mood. Eat sweets in the middle of the day, and watch out! High-glycemic foods like cookies, candy, sodas, etc., can give you a sugar high, quickly followed by a sugar coma, when eaten on an empty stomach. Because of their empty calories, we’d recommend avoiding sweets altogether, but if you must indulge, always do it on a full stomach.


Meals and snacks containing protein are your best bet for maximum alertness throughout the day. That coffee and doughnut might get you out the door in the morning, but there will probably be a dip in energy shortly thereafter. Eating protein raises your tyrosine levels, which provokes chemical messengers to increase brain activity and alertness. Lean meat, poultry, and fish are your best sources as you get the healthy protein without the artery-clogging fat that can restrict blood flow to your brain. Legumes, nuts, and seeds are great vegetable sources that combine good complex carbohydrates and protein without a ton of calories or unhealthy fat. You also don’t need to go nuts with the protein. A serving that is the size of the palm of your hand should produce the neurotransmitters necessary to get you through to the next meal. If you have a big test or meeting that you want maximum brainpower for, three chicken breasts aren’t going to give you three times the neurotransmitters. In fact, overloading on calories, regardless of whether they’re from carbohydrates, proteins, or fats, is going to slow down the brain.

Vitamins and supplements

There are lots of micronutrients, especially in fruits and vegetables, that can increase brain function. B-complex vitamins, and choline in particular, are vital for good brain function. Choline, found in eggs, has been found to enhance memory and reaction time and reduce fatigue. This is why it’s such a prevalent ingredient in “smart” drugs and supplements. Gingko biloba has also been shown to increase memory. And the benefits don’t stop with being book smart. Adding choline and other brain-healthy supplements to runners’ diets has been shown to help reduce their running times and increase their physical activity. After all, it’s your brain that tells your muscles what to do. It’s one of the reasons Beachbody® includes choline and gingko biloba, among many, many other brain-boosting ingredients, in ActiVit® multivitamins .

The best brainpower foods

To get the most brainpower for your buck, you should try eating three small meals with three small interspersed snacks to keep your blood sugar regulated and your brain equipped with a steady, but not overloaded, fuel supply. Any diet should be a balanced supply of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, and should be supplemented with a good multivitamin and omega-3/fish oil supplement. The best foods include:

Protein. Lean beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, salmon, tuna, soybeans, peanut butter, nuts.

Carbohydrates. Bananas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leafy green veggies like spinach and collard greens, oatmeal, whole-grain bread, brown rice, sweet potatoes.

Fats. Avocados, olive oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil.

AVOID: Alcohol, processed sugars and flours, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated fats, nicotine.

A good food day for the brain (and your figure)


Two-egg spinach omelet

Whole wheat toast, lightly spread with peanut butter

Mid-morning snack

Small handful of almonds


or Shakeology


Salmon filet (4 ounces)

Romaine salad with broccoli, chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumbers, and avocado with tablespoon of olive or flaxseed oil and lemon juice or vinegar for dressing

Mid-afternoon snack


Small handful of walnuts

or Shakeology


Stir-fry chicken breast (4 ounces, chopped) and vegetables (carrots, beans, peppers, onions, garlic, broccoli, etc.) in one tablespoon of olive or canola oil

Brown rice


Banana and yogurt or Shakeology


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