Healthy fats for mental fitness
No health-promoting diet would be complete without an adequate supply of healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular may be instrumental in maintaining brain health throughout life.
“Omega-3s, particularly a component called DHA, are present in the brain, so having them in your diet will be beneficial to your brain,” explains Moores. Fatty fish is a particularly good source of DHA, she adds. “Components of fatty acids in fish go straight to the synapses of nerve cells,” says Duke University Medical Center Professor H. Scott Swartzwelder, PhD, who is also a senior research scientist with the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs. That means they help neurons communicate with one another, which may have a positive effect on learning and memory.
What to eat: Because your body can’t make these essential fatty acids, you have to get them from what you eat. The best source of omega-3s is cold-water fish like wild salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and tuna (limit your intake of albacore, however, because of the mercury content). Plant options include walnuts and flaxseeds. Avocados, other nuts and seeds, as well as healthy oils like olive and canola, are beneficial for other reasons, too, since they play a part in lowering the bad cholesterol (LDL) in the blood and help promote blood flow–another important factor in brain health.
Researchers have long known that sufficient intake of folate, a water-soluble B vitamin, by pregnant women can help prevent some brain and spinal cord birth defects. But new research shows that folate may benefit everyone else, too. Elderly people deficient in B vitamins can suffer cognitive decline, including memory loss. On the other hand, people who consume higher levels of the B vitamins (folate, B12, and B6) may reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Folate also seems to play a role in decreasing homocysteine levels in the blood, which may improve cardiovascular health. And that means good blood flow to all organs, including the brain.
What to eat: Whole grains, green, leafy vegetables, and legumes such as dried beans, lentils, and peas.
Minerals for better concentration
If your mind wanders or you have memory lapses here and there, you may need more zinc and iron in your diet. A lot of research has linked decreased iron and zinc levels with poorer mental performance in children, but new studies on adults suggest these same elements help keep grown-ups’ minds sharp as well. Marginally low iron reserves reduced adults’ ability to concentrate, and lower levels of zinc slowed test participants’ ability to recall words.
What to eat: Good sources of iron include red meat (preferably lean), oysters, fortified cereals, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, tofu, and blackstrap molasses. (For better iron absorption from plant foods, pair them with good sources of vitamin C, such as orange juice.) For zinc, choose red meats, oysters, dark-meat poultry, pork, pumpkin seeds, soy nuts, and wheat germ.
Grab and Go Brain Foods
Your brain is your body’s gas-guzzler. In other words, it needs a steady supply of nutrient-rich calories with a good balance of healthy fats, protein, and carbs to function at peak performance. Try these healthy mini-meals and snacks on the run.
* Homemade trail mix: whole-grain cereal squares mixed with nuts and dried fruit
* Apple slices spread with peanut butter
* Low-fat yogurt with fresh or frozen fruit, sprinkled with nuts or seeds
* Fruit smoothies made with low-fat yogurt or milk blended with fresh or frozen fruit and a little honey
* Baby carrots to dip in salsa or hummus
* Whole-wheat pita stuffed with garbanzos or edamame, shredded carrots, and a few raisins, moistened with yogurt flavored with a little curry powder
* Mini fruit pops: freeze juice in an ice-cube tray stuck with popsicle sticks
* Celery stuffed with almond butter and raisins or hummus
By Pamela Harding, Natural Solutions
Pamela Harding is a New-York based freelance writer covering topics of health, food, and pets.