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Brain Food

It is important to eat a balanced wholesome diet in order to keep our brains and hence our bodies functioning optimally. Food provides nutrients for the growth and development of neurons and cells’ making up the brain and hence providing our brains with the correct nutrients is essential for optimal development and functioning.

There is no scientific definition for brain food but research has started to link certain nutrients found in certain foods with health benefits - whether it be beneficial to the brain or other organs of the body. Food definitely affects our cognitive state because when we do not eat we feel tired and lethargic. More research needs to be done on the nuber of phytonutrients, antioxidants and certain minerals which we think may play key roles in protecting out organs (including our brains) from oxidative or harmful agents found in the environment, foods and byproducts in our bodies.

Below are a few examples of foods which researches believe to have health benefits:

Green leafy vegetables: Green leaft vegetables are nutrient dense foods containing a range of protective vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (non-essential nutrients, but many have been scientifically confirmed as being beneficial to human health). In terms of vitamins, green leafy vegetables contain significant amounts of vitamin C, vitamin K and folic acid. Vitamin C is one of the most important immune boosting vitamins. The high level of vitamin K in green leafy vegetables makes them important for the production of osteocalcin, a protein essential for bone health. Folic acid being one of the B vitamins has been shown in certain studies, to protect us from cognitive decline in the latter years of our lives as it is involved in the division and growth of our cells. Green leafy vegetables also provide our bodies with a rich source of potassium and magnesium, 2 nutrients necessary for certain enzyme reactions to occur. Green leafy vegetables also provide our bodies with a variety of phytonutrients including lutein and zeaxanthin, these are carotenoids concentrated in the eye lens and macular region of the retina. These carotenoids play a protective role in the eye. They protect against both cataract and age-related macular degeneration, the major cause of blindness in the elderly. Some studies suggest that lutein and zeaxanthin may help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast and lung cancer, and may contribute to the prevention of heart disease and stroke. The most nutrient dense varieties of green leafy vegetables are the dark green varieties like spinaches, broccoli and kale. In terms of cooking, eating these vegetables in the rawest state possible will ensure you benefit from the majority of the nutrients. When cooking, come of the vitamins like the B vitamins are water soluble and hence seep out of the plant when boiled. We should all try to have at least 1 serving of green leafy vegetables, preferably the dark green varieties, daily.

Soya: Soya beans also contains phytochemicals (non-essential nutrients, but many have been scientifically confirmed as being beneficial to human health) which have been shown to suggest significant health benefits in areas such as heart health and bone health. Studies have suggested that soy products may help in lowering out total cholesterol levels. This could be due to the role of plant sterols found in the soy bean. In order for the soy to have this effect, one needs to ingest about 30g/day of soy protein - which may not always be possible. Due to this discrepancy in the research, the American Heart Association no longer recommends soy for heart disease as an alternative protein source. Several studies have suggested that soy isoflavones (organic compounds found in soya beans), may be a factor in helping to prevent bone loss. The isoflavone, genistein seems to inhibit bone breakdown and may have similar effects to estrogens in maintaining bone tissue. The most commonly eaten sources of soya are tofu and soya milk.

Oily fish: Oily fish are a good source of Vitamins as well as being rich in omega 3 fatty acids (white fish also contain the same nutrients but at a much lower level). For this reason the consumption of oily fish can be more beneficial to humans than white fish, particularly concerning cardiovascular diseases. Amongst other benefits, studies suggest that the omega 3 fatty acids in oily fish may help sufferers of depression, reduce the likelihood of heart disease and improve inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Consuming oily fish twice per week may also help prevent sudden death due to myocardial infarction by preventing cardiac arrhythmia but this has not been completely proven. The eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) found in fish oils appears to dramatically reduce inflammation and hence could be the helpful factor. Some examples of oily fish are salmon, tuna and herring. Be aware that some trace elements of mercury have been found in certain fatty fish like king mackerel and hence ones intake needs to be limited (always ready your food labels!). When eating fish, the best way to prepare the dish is to grill or bake the fish in small amounts of polyunsaturated oil (like olive oil) - fried and battered fish use large amounts of oils which saturate when heated and increases our risk of cardiovascular disease.

Almond Nuts: Almonds are a rich source of Vitamin E , one of the strong antioxidants. Antioxidants play a key role in preventing the effects of free radicals which are molecules that damage our cells. Our brains are extremely sensitive to oxidative injury by free radicals and hence a diet high in antioxidants like vitamin E, can be used to prevent such injuries. Almonds are also rich in monounsaturated fat, one of the two "good" fats responsible for lowering LDL cholesterol. Some sources claim that almonds may increase our HDL cholesterol (our good cholesterol) as well, but the current evidence is inconclusive. There are also claims that almonds as well as almond oil can be nutritive to the brain and neuron development - but there is no evidence to currently back up these claims. Almond nuts, along with the majority of other nuts, contain omega 6 fatty acids (essential fatty acids meaning we need to get it from the foods we eat - our bodies cannot produce it alone) which if taken along with the correct proportion of omega 3 fatty acid rich foods, aids in many of the physiological pathways in our bodies. Eating nuts in their rawest form is the most beneficial for our health. Raw almonds are also an excellent source of fibre which keeps our intestinal tracts clean as well as aid in lowering out ‘bad’ cholesterol once again.

Berries: Berries are often termed ‘super foods’ - although just a commercial name, berries do contain a dense amount for vitamins, antioxidants and once again phytonutrients. All these nutrients have been shown in a number of studies to prevent and heal neuron degeneration and restore health in the central nervous system. The antioxidant properties of berries are usually found in the berries’ skin. Including berries in your diet as often as possible will enhance the effect of the antioxidant activity and give you long term health benefits.

Oats: Oats are known as being a ‘cholesterol lowering’ food - this is due to the high amount of soluble fibre found in oats. Oat bran is the name given to the outer casing of the oat grain. Its consumption is believed to lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol , and possibly to reduce the risk of heart disease. Oats contain more soluble fiber than any other grain, resulting in slower digestion and an extended sensation of fullness - hence excellent in controlling ones blood sugar levels. Due to the fact that oats can lower ones cholesterol, studies have suggested that a diet high in oats and more generally soluble fibre, can help in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Oats are best consumed in the ‘raw’ state and then cooked - look for oats in the supermarkets that say Raw oats/Rolled oats. These days, ‘Quick oats’ and other products like these contain huge amounts of sugars or flavourings etc and hence are not as beneficial as plain raw/rolled oats. If possible, a bowl of oats for breakfast is one of the BEST breakfast options one can choose in terms of health benefits.

Green tea: Green tea has been reportedly associated with various health-promoting properties. Some inconclusive studies have suggested that green tea may promote fat oxidation in humans at rest and prevent obesity and improve insulin sensitivity in mice (this has not been shown in the human population as yet). Green tea has a high antioxidant content, and laboratory tests indicate that green tea can be much higher in antioxidant properties than black, oolong or even white tea (uncured tea). Apart from the antioxidant content, green tea is also commonly prescribed as a ‘cleaning’ agent - substituting coffee or milky tea with green tea throughout the day, will ensure you stay hydrated as well as increase your antioxidant levels and hence your immunity! As a dietician, I advise my patients to try and have at least 2 cups of green tea per day - substituting one of their coffees for the healthier, green tea option.

Kelly Lynch Registered Dietician The City Hospital