We’re used to feeding our bodies the right nutrition, but as neuronutritionist Dr Lisa Mosconi reveals, getting the right fuel to our brains can make the difference between a high-performance genius box and sluggish grey matter – here’s what we learnt…
1. Hard Water Makes You Brainier Given that your brain is almost 80% water, it’s no surprise to hear that being well hydrated, with eight large glasses a day, is vital for a healthy one. ‘Water is involved in every chemical reaction occurring in the brain. In fact, brain cells require a delicate balance of water and other elements, such as minerals and salts, to work efficiently at all,’ says Dr Lisa Mosconi in her book Brain Food: How To Eat Smart And Sharpen Your Brain.
What’s less well known is that not all water is equal as it flows out of the tap. ‘The longevity and wellbeing of both your brain and your body is critically dependent on what we call hard water. This refers to water that is high in minerals like calcium and magnesium.’ If you’re fortunate to live in a hard water area then you’re good to go, otherwise spring water or a home filtration system is your go to.
2. Your Brain Is Crying Out For The Right Fat The brain does contain fat but the vast majority of its saturated and monounsaturated fats are produced within the brain itself. ‘It’s as if, in a dialogue that’s been going on for millions of years, the brain is telling the body: “Don’t worry, I got this. Please bring me the other fats I need.”’ So, what are these essential fats? ‘Polyunsaturated fats are the only kinds of fat the brain cannot make on its own, and at the same time determinedly craves. This is especially true for the omega-3s and omega-6s found in fish, eggs, nuts and seeds.’
What’s more you need the right balance of omega-6 to omega-3, in about a two-to-one ratio. ‘However, there are some estimates that Americans consume twenty or thirty times as much omega-6 than omega-3, making the typical American diet highly inflammatory,’ says Mosconi. Plant based omega-3, or ALA, combines with animal-based DHA and EPA. The food that tops the DHA tree is caviar, with salmon roe just behind, but you can it from herring and mackerel too. Flaxseed, hemp seed and chia seeds are all top plant sources of omega-3.
3. Glucose Is Your Brain’s Ammo Got a high-stakes presentation, or crunch exam coming up? Then you need to make sure your mental firepower is loaded with full metal jackets. In brain terms this is glucose, pure and simple. ‘While the body can use both fat and sugar for energy, the brain relies exclusively on a sugar called glucose,’ says Mosconi. But, before you reach for a choc chip muffin know this: ‘When most people say carbs they think of white food: sugar, bread, pasta and baked goods. As sugary as these foods might taste, they are not good sources of glucose.’
It turns out that the best sources of natural glucose are unlikely heroes including beetroot, turnips and onions. ‘Fruits like kiwi, grapes, raisins and dates are also excellent, as are raw honey and maple syrup.’ So how much glucose do we need a day? Moscini says you won’t find the answer easily but in her scientific judgement you need 62 grams of glucose every 24 hours, which only adds up to about 250 calories. The brain works on a strict supply and demand model with glucose, so eating more will only add to your waistline.
4. Blood-Sugar Spikes Are The Thinking Man’s Kryptonite Closely connected to the subject of glucose are your blood sugar levels. ‘A major downside of the brain’s reliance on glucose is that our mental sharpness is highly vulnerable to any drops in blood sugar levels,’ says Mosconi. She recommends avoiding white carbs to prevent developing insulin resistance. And low-glycemic index carbs containing natural fibre should be your go to, for a brain that fires on all cylinders without crashing. If you do have to reach for a sweet treat be clever about it: ‘For example, a square of organic dark chocolate (70% or higher) has a low glycemic load.’
5. Kill Trans-Fats To Protect Your Smarts If you weren’t already, then you really need to be a grocery store vigilante when it comes to trans fats, AKA hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fat or oils, or ‘shortening’. Consuming just 2g per day of trans fats has been shown, across several studies, to increase the risk of cognitive decline and eventual dementia. Despite all the official advice to avoid these like the plague, manufacturers still sneak them in to baked goods like commercial donuts, pie crusts, frozen pizzas, cookies and crackers, margarines, many ‘spreadable’ or creamy products and even ready-made cake frosting.
So, check those ingredients labels; but there’s a catch, says Mosconi. ‘Due to some latitude in current regulations, even foods appearing to be trans fat-free might instead contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving… if a food contains 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving, the company is allowed to list it at “0”grams [in the US].’ This means eating just two teaspoons of a butter spread a day could already be poisoning your brain with one gram of trans fat you didn’t know about.
Choline is vital for memory and learning but up to 90% of people are deficient in it
6. Boost Your Memory With Choline You’re not alone if you’ve never heard of choline, but the brain depends on this B vitamin to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is vital for memory and learning. Thing is, your brain cannot produce it on its own – 10% of your daily need is produced by the liver, leaving 90% to be provided by your diet.
Unfortunately, up to 90% of Americans are choline deficient, says Mosconi. If you find yourself being a bit forgetful, or struggle to learn, then this is a clear sign you could be one of them. When you look at the sources for the 550mg of choline men need everyday this isn’t not that surprising. You’d need to have 27 grapefruits for breakfast, or 1.8kg (4 lbs) of broccoli at lunch, or a four-egg omelette (yolks included) for dinner. Fortunately, there’s a fix: Mosconi recommends sprinkling brewer’s yeast on cooked veg or into soups and stews because it contains 400mg per 100g. (It’s in Marmite too…)
7. Armour Your Grey Matter With Antioxidants ‘Of all bodily organs, the brain is the one that suffers most from oxidative stress.’ The glucose-powered brain burns oxygen too, so thought by thought, the oxidative process builds up. This is, quite literally a scary thought, but before you start stressing out realise there’s a readily available defence in your fridge. ‘Some antioxidants are produced by our body, but most are not,’ says Mosconi. ‘In particular, vitamin E (from flaxseeds or almonds) and vitamin C (from citrus, berries, and a variety of veggies), are the body’s main antioxidant defenders.’
WHAT NEXT? Find out more about the body’s hungriest organ in Lisa Mosconi’s new book Brain Food: How To Eat Smart And Sharpen Your Brain.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
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