Brain power can be boosted not just by brain training and physical exercise, but also by choosing our diets carefully and taking into account the findings of modern scientific research. With an ever increasing life expectancy, we have an interest in healthy eating that is reaching epic proportions. And we now expect much more from our food than ever before. Food is not just fuel to get us through the day. All calories are not created equal. We want our food to enhance our physical and mental activity, as well as our moods. We want our food to contain cancer fighting agents and prevent cognitive decline. We want our food to stimulate the brain growth of neonates and the immune systems of our newborns.
What most people don’t realize is that you can get all your essential nutrients from the food that you are consuming on an every day basis. And while there are many marketing experts that will try to sell you the extracted ingredients at high costs in pill format, most of the vitamins and minerals that pack the best brain punch can be found in their purest forms at your local grocery shop. This list below will get you started on a diet that is jam packed full of brain food to raise your IQ and maintain a very high standard of brain fitness. And of course, while you still need to get your physical exercise, your mental workouts, and your good night’s sleep, these foods will provide your body with the fuel needed to keep your brain running on the most efficient fuel.
Scientists at the University of Illinois found that a diet rich in a plant compound called luteolin reduces age-related inflammation in the brain and related memory deficits by directly inhibiting the release of inflammatory molecules in the brain (Jang, Dilger, Johnson, 2010). Celery is one food that is very high in luteolin. Other vegetables such as peppers and carrots also contain high levels of luteolin. So if you want to keep your memory in tip top shape, eat plenty of celery, peppers and carrots.
We hear a lot about the Omega-3s these days and indeed there is a large body of scientific evidence supporting that these fatty acids are essential for healthy brain activity. Seniors who have high levels of Omega-3 in their blood score higher on cognitive ability tests and on other tests of memory (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2008). Walnuts provide a very strong source of Omega-3. While salmon actually appears to be a richer source of Omega-3, it is not likely that people will eat salmon every single day. Walnuts, on the other hand, can be eaten as a snack or put into cereals and salads with reckless abandon. Other oily cold water fish such as mackerel, herring, sardines and trout are also full of the Omega-3 fatty acids so aim to include these as much as three times per week for maximal brain benefits.
3. Red meat
Well we have probably all heard that you shouldn’t eat too much red meat these days because over eating it can cause damage to the colon. However, when it comes down to the ever important vitamin B12, red meat is the strongest provider. In fact, a B12 deficiency will cause nerve and brain damage! So, while we don’t recommend that you eat red meat every day, we do recommend that you eat it on a weekly basis. There are B12 supplements and alternatives for those of us that don’t eat red meat, but unfortunately none of them are as rich a source of this vitamin as red meat. So while you can eat leafy greens and take vitamin supplements for your B12, you will need to eat vast amounts of them to get the same amount of B12 that you would get from red meat.
The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry (2012) states that a diet rich in blueberries is associated with faster learning, sharper thinking and improved memory retention. Perhaps not surprisingly, strawberries, blackberries and other berries show similar benefits.
5. Whole grains
We all need sugar to fuel our brains and our bodies. However, the slow release sugar found in whole grains such as barley and bulgur provide longer lasting energy being supplied to the brain. Remember that all sugar is not created equal. If you want the good sugars that we need for the most efficient brain functioning, we need to move away from the fizzy drinks, cheap breads and cakes and stick with the whole grains. Indeed, a word of caution is necessary here; eating cheap breads, cakes and fizzy drinks instead of the healthy whole grains for your sugars, can actually reduce your IQ! But the great news is that you don’t have to be creative to get your whole grains in. You can build whole grains into many different meals at any time of day. So whether you want to find some tasty toppings for your oatmeal or bake your pizza base from scratch, here are some great recipes.
Chickpeas have the combined advantage of complex carbohydrate to give you the energy you need plus protein which keeps you alert. Protein, contains high levels of amino acids, such as tyrosine, which in turn causes neurons to produce very important neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine. These are associated with mental alertness which is an essential part of learning. Chickpeas are also brimming with magnesium which is thought to play an important role in metabolizing energy that enables brain cell receptors to speed up the transmission of messages (i.e., quicker thinking and faster acting brains). Finally, scientists also report that foods high in magnesium also help to relax blood vessels which allows more blood to flow to the brain. All in all, this is fantastic news for hummus lovers. You should also try out these delicious spicy chickpea patties.
7. Dark chocolate
One new study published in Hypertension (2013) showed that consuming dark chocolate every day may improve thinking skills in adults with mild cognitive impairment. In this study, older adults were enlisted to take part in research where they were asked to consume either low, moderate of high amounts of flavanols in a cocoa based beverage every day for eight weeks. The scientists found that there was a link between higher amounts of flavanols and improvements in tests of cognitive function. Put simply, the higher the concentration of flavanols, the better people did on the tests of cognitive functioning. The participants who consumed highest amounts of flavanols were able to complete tests more quickly and recall more information. One word of caution to readers is that this particular study was funded by Mars so there is a potential conflict of interest here. However, the finding that flavanols are good for you is not exactly news. Flananols are widely known to reduce blood pressure and it may be that their effect on increasing blood flow is having a secondary effect on brain functioning. Flavanols are also found in red wine, grapes, apples and tea, if for any reason you do not wish to consume vast quantities of dark chocolate.
Almonds are very high in vitamin E which is thought to protect the brain from age related damage and to improve learning and memory skills. Almonds also contain riboflavin and L-carnitrine which are widely accepted as nutrients that boost brain activity.
Broccoli contains Vitamin K which strengthens cognitive abilities and Choline which has been found to improve memory. Broccoli also contains folic acid which can help to ward of Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies also suggest that a lack of folic acid can lead to depression so broccoli may be good for our brains on many levels, not strictly in terms of doing well on IQ or memory tests. If you’re not that into broccoli on its own, check out this site for a delicious broccoli, cannellini bean and cheddar soup.
In 1994, Miller found that the workings of the human brain depends on communication between our brain’s 100 billion neurons. The axon of each neuron is coated in a type of insulation known as myelin. When myelin is thicker, the transmission of impulses between neurons is faster. This is turn is linked to higher intelligence. Avocados are known to have a high fat content and yet this is fat that is good for our brains. Avocados are rich in a fatty acid called “oleic acid” which helps build myelin sheathes found in the white matter in the brain. Neurons without myelin process information at slower speeds. So while we know that correlation is not the same as causation, eating avocados does appear to be a helpful method for building up our myelin. Other sources of oleic acid include olives, almonds and pecans.
A few recipes using these and other good brain foods can be found here.
Now go forth, eat well and boost that brain power!