There’s a lot of science behind how feeding your brain leads to improved mental wellbeing. This includes the ability to enhance your mood and concentration, naturally improve learning and memory capacity, as well as aid in weight loss over time — if you need to lose weight. Here is a summary of seven ways to do just that.
1. Sweat, sleep, sex and stress — what they mean to your brain
More and more research is revealing that when we take care of our bodies through exercise, when we reduce and manage our stress levels and surround ourselves with loving and supportive relationships, we help our brain to stay healthy for as long as possible.
Add great sleep and the pleasure of sex to this mix, and our brains have the opportunity to work efficiently, and provide us with the support we need to remain calm, happy and productive in our busy lives.
Our brains respond to these positive activities, and the reduction of stress, by becoming more robust at the cellular level, thereby enhancing neuronal functioning.
What you need to focus on: Becoming more physically active, reducing your stress levels naturally and improving your relationships, along with getting more restorative sleep and boosting your sex life.
2. What food intolerances do to your brain
Specific foods are more likely to cause a brain reaction — and addiction — than others, and knowing which ones they are, and removing them from our diet, can improve our brain function.
In addition, optimal digestive health is critically important for our busy brains and by ensuring ideal digestion and absorption are maintained, we can improve our brain’s ability to function optimally.
What you need to focus on: Removing the foods that you may be intolerant to, such as gluten and/or dairy, among others, and improving gut function, both of which directly impact mental health.
3. Why food additives are bad for your brain
Modern food processing uses a vast quantity of additives to ensure shelf stability, and also removes compounds, such as fibre, which are important for optimal health. Unfortunately, the majority of the additives used in processed food are not tested in combination, so their safety is questionable, especially with regard to brain function.
Do your brain a favour and add some natural, colourful foods to your diet
In addition, a number of additives pose a direct threat to brain cells, and removing them from our diet is critically important for brain health. Heavy metals and other toxic compounds found in many household cleaning products and pesticides also pose a threat to our delicate brains.
What you need to focus on: Eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods that haven’t visited a factory before you buy them, such as colourful fresh produce and whole, gluten-free grains and legumes; making your own salad dressings and sauces; and avoiding additives in the minimally processed foods you might eat, such as rice cakes or crackers.
4. The vitamins and minerals your brain needs
Vitamins and minerals are crucially important for optimum brain health because the brain uses them to generate energy, make neurotransmitters, and ensure membrane flexibility and permeability, among many other activities.
These nutrients have specific roles to play in the brain, and modern diets, as well as very restrictive diets, can irreparably compromise brain development, growth and maintenance.
Antioxidants in whole, unprocessed foods also support great brain health by quenching free-radical activity and the dangers it poses to brain health. In addition, pure, clean water is required to ensure optimal brain function, because dehydration has a direct and immediate effect on the brain’s ability to function.
What you need to focus on: Eating a large variety of seasonal, colourful fresh fruit and vegetables as well as sprouts, and whole, gluten-free grains, legumes and nuts and seeds, while supplementing wisely with nutrients, according to your specific needs.
You can do so much with fresh produce, like this fresh Thai stew – get the recipe
5. Protein and communication in your brain
Neurotransmitters are tiny compounds that brain cells use to communicate with each other; they are made from the building blocks of protein, amino acids, along with other nutrients, that our diets need to provide.
Mood-altering substances, from coffee to antidepressants, impact these neurotransmitters. Although many people believe that animal products and protein powders are the best sources of protein, they may come with risks to optimum brain function.
Poor digestion and inadequate liver function also impact the body’s ability to make these messengers with ease.
What you need to focus on: Eating a variety of gluten-free grains, such as quinoa and millet, along with legumes, sprouts, nuts and seeds. If you choose to eat animal products they should be organic, and all animal flesh should be both organic and grass fed. Most fish in the ocean live in contaminated seawater, so wild-caught fish is the best option, but it should not be relied on to supply the brain’s requirement for protein.
6. Stable energy for your brain
Carbohydrates are the brain’s primary source of fuel, and although there are different forms of carbohydrates, the brain prefers unprocessed, nutrient-dense, high-fibre forms rather than quick-release types that negatively impact blood glucose.
Coffee provides a temporary solution to a tired brain, artificial sweeteners come with their own dangers, while refined sugars contribute to general physical and cognitive ageing.
Why not make this Coconut and banana custard dessert recipe? It’s dairy-free and has no refined sugar!
Ensuring all meals (and snacks) contain unrefined carbohydrates will deliver a steady supply of glucose to keep the brain fuelled, along with the ability to sustain an even mood, and focused thinking.
What you need to focus on: Whole, unprocessed, fibre-rich carbohydrates such as leafy greens, brassicas (cruciferous vegetables), coloured root vegetables, gluten-free grains and legumes along with fresh fruit and berries.
7. The foundation fats for your brain
Fats and oils are one of the most misunderstood topics in nutrition, and with the dry weight of the brain being 60 per cent fat, it is a very important issue to grasp fully. Although the body can make both saturated and monounsaturated fats, it cannot make polyunsaturated fats, which comprise 20–25 per cent of the brain’s 60 per cent fat.
Unfortunately most people eat too many damaged fats and are therefore not getting enough of the right fats to ensure their brain is working optimally. Additionally, cooking with the wrong fats leads to the consumption of more damaged fats. Research has shown that the consumption of the right fats can improve brain development and overall function.
What you need to focus on: Cold-pressed, organic oils stored in dark glass bottles. Coconut oil and butter are good sources of saturated fats; extra-virgin, single-origin olive oil is a good choice of monounsaturated fats; and a balanced blend of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fats (EFAs) is best as the source of polyunsaturated fats.
This is an edited extract from 'Feed Your Brain: The Cookbook' by Delia McCabe (RRP $34.99), available from www.exislepublishing.com and wherever good books are sold.
What are your plans to improve your health this spring?