We've all heard about the havoc that an unbalanced, fat-heavy diet can wreak on our hearts — not to mention waistlines. How convenient, then, that the recipe for a heart-healthy diet is good for the brain, too. Just in case you've forgotten, here are a few diet ideas to help keep the mind in tip-top shape.
The brain is vulnerable to oxidation — a process that occurs naturally but is accelerated by free-floating radicals, molecules that can damage DNA, cells, and contribute to a host of diseases. In addition to the body's supply, foods contain antioxidants that can help combat their harmful effects. The number one food on the good-for-the-brain list is blueberries — nicknamed brainberries — for their high levels of antioxidants. Dr. Lotta Granholm-Bentley, director of the Center on Aging at MUSC, urges patients to eat one cup per day (she does) and reminds them that cooking reduces the potency of the antioxidants. So although that berry cobbler counts as brain food, too, eat it within a day or two to get the greatest benefit.
Other antioxidant-rich foods:
• Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, and cherries
• Beans: red, black, pinto, and kidney
• Artichoke hearts
• Sweet potatoes
WATCH YOUR FATS
The brain needs fats to function, but the organ won't work with just any ol' version. The brain builds the pathways of communication out of fatty acid molecules and cannot produce all it requires. It needs essential fatty acids (the omega-3 and omega-6 only available in food) to build cells. Whereas these molecules, which occur naturally in oily fish and olive oil, enhance the performance and number of brain cells, a diet rich in saturated or man-made (trans) fats has been tied to higher risk for Alzheimer's disease.
When food manufacturers added hydrogen to vegetable oil to make trans fat, a process known as hydrogenation, they not only made foods that last longer and are easier to transport, they also produced a type of fat that clogs communication in the brain. Many fried food, margarines, and highly processed snack foods contain trans fats. Granholm-Bentley says "absolutely none" for her brain diet, but urges the importance of at least knowing which foods have them. As of January this year, the FDA made that possible, requiring labels to indicate trans fats. But be warned: if the serving size has less than a 1/2 gram of fat, that counts as zero (and when a serving size equals 10 chips, those 1/2 grams can add up quickly).
A LITTLE SOMETHING ON THE SIDE, PERHAPS?
A host of vitamins and supplements have been lauded as good for the brain. Yet there is little consensus on the necessity, efficacy, or dosage for many of them. Vitamin E (which occurs naturally in green leafy veggies and natural oils) for instance, works as an antioxidant and could help prevent cell degeneration if high enough doses are sustained long and early enough in life. B vitamins — B-12, B-6, and folate — help with the formation of essential brain chemicals. Magnesium and vitamin C are also crucial to brain function. Dr. Warachal Faison, a psychiatrist who researches Alzheimer's, suggests that because each person's diet determines how much vitamins he/she already gets and some supplements interfere with medications, consult your primary physician before adding them to the pillbox.