By Stacey Seacord-Peters
As a nutritional consultant, I’m always looking for things that promote great brain health. It’s encouraging to find so many practical, everyday activities that can be easily incorporated into daily life that, and over time can have a huge positive impact. Read on to learn about 5 nutritional habits you can enjoy that will keep your brain going strong.
Food habits to boost brain function — plus a list of brain superfoods:
While there are of course many reasons for an “off” day — like stress, not enough restorative sleep, hormone imbalances — it’s worth it to look at what you’re eating and drinking to see if the culprit of your brain fog might be sitting on your plate.
Here are five nutritional habits that improve your brain’s ability to function optimally. Practice these, and chances are you’ll see noticeable improvements all around.
- Eating the right carbs at the right time of day. Carbohydrates are the essential building blocks of energy. Your body definitely needs them to function! But your body and your brain really need complex, nutritionally-dense carbs (see the list below), and they need them at the start of the day, in balance with high-quality protein and good fats. Vegetables are a fantastic source of nutrient-dense carbohydrates, so feel free to eat as many of those as you like.
- Lay off the sugar for sweeter brain power. Whatever its name or guise — glucose, HFCF, maltodextrin, syrups, alcohol, flour — sugar is something that should be consumed infrequently and in limited quantities. This is, of course, easier said than done, as it is highly addictive (eight times as addictive as cocaine!) and activates the same brain centers as other well-known addictions. Sugar can cause insulin spikes and inflammation, which result in both vascular and neuronal damage. It decreases the function of the hippocampus (responsible for memory and learning) and it is a consistent culprit in the link to depression.
- Know your fats, and get plenty of the good ones. Fat has been framed as the enemy for decades, but the science is clear: certain fats are definitely our friends. You’ve likely heard the buzz about Omega-3s, found in salmon and other fatty fish, nuts, and seeds. These types of fat are essential for healthy brain function; they make up a full 8% of our brain’s volume. As one landmark study found, “Omega-3s have been shown to possess antidepressant and neuroprotective properties. Aging humans who consumed more omega-3s had increased gray matter brain volume and that most new tissue development was observed in the part of the brain associated with happiness.”
Even saturated fats — the right kinds — can have immense health benefits. Coconut oil, for example, is perfect for high-heat cooking, gives quick energy, has actually been shown to help people lose weight, and carries the added anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal benefits of lauric acid. The only fats you really need to avoid in a normal, healthy diet are trans fats and highly-processed oils/butters. Other than that, go ahead — make friends with fat again!
- Get clear about your sensitivities. There is an undeniable gut-brain connection. When your body is fighting inflammation and irritation, it affects every aspect of your life, including how you think, feel, process, and problem-solve. If things don’t “quite feel right” in your body, take it seriously. Get checked for allergies or food sensitivities. The main culprits are gluten, dairy, grains in general, and sugar, but some people also react to foods like soy, corn, peanuts, and eggs. These sensitivities can show up in ways that don’t immediately seem connected to digestion — like headaches, insomnia, brain fog, low energy, inability to focus, joint pain, acne, depression, autoimmune disorders, and low libido. It may seem impossible now to give up ice cream or pasta — but if your body can’t process those things properly, you will feel a million times better if you take the leap and cut them out.
- Look for foods that are naturally rich in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The key word here is “naturally.” Our bodies don’t really know how to efficiently process Vitamin C that’s been added back into something after all the nutritional properties have been essentially stripped from it. But it absolutely loves the iron that occurs naturally in raw spinach — and your brain uses that iron to boost clarity and cognition. It loves the fiber that helps cardiovascular health, which in turn keeps the brain bathed in plenty of oxygen. It loves the antioxidants that fight free-radicals, toxins, and the effects of aging — and that help to balance mood and improve memory.
Food expert Michael Pollan’s advice is timeless: Shop the perimeter of the grocery story. Steer clear of packaged and processed foods. Eat whole foods, mostly plants, mostly organic when you can. Keep it simple. Get a good variety.
Here’s a short list of brain superfoods, along with what makes them so great:
Dark leafy greens (fiber, iron, antioxidants, minerals)
Blueberries (antioxidants, low glycemic index, vitamins)
Avocado (vitamin E, antioxidants, beneficial fats)
Nuts (antioxidants, healthy fats, vitamin E, fiber)
Raw cacao (flavinols, antioxidants, fiber, serotonin boost)
Salmon, wild-caught (beneficial fats, iron, anti-inflammatory)
Tomatoes (lycopene and other antioxidants, vitamins)
Garlic (antioxidants, anti-bacterial properties, lowers cholesterol)
Oatmeal (fiber, iron, vitamins)
Beans (regulate blood sugar, fiber, minerals, and protein)
Seeds (protein, beneficial fat, antioxidants, magnesium)
Freshly brewed green tea, 1-2 cups/day (catechine antioxidants, minimal caffeine)
So, eat up! Your body — and your brain — will thank you for it.
As a nutritional consultant, I support all the ways you’re looking to keep your brain happy, healthy, young, and strong.