Food for thought: Brain fuel

By Siobhan Moylan

Food for thought: Brain fuel
What you put on your dinner plate is just as important for your brain as your body.

If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s any truth to the adage ‘food for thought’ or the term ‘brain food’ – good news, there is. A growing body of evidence shows certain foods can add to your brainpower. Your choice of food can affect your quality of thought, feelings and concentration.

Patrick Holford is a psychologist, nutritionist and author of several books including The Feel Good Factor, New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, and The Alzheimer’s Prevention Plan. “The brain is literally made from food,” says Holford. “Sixty per cent of the dry weight of the brain is fat, principally essential fats such as omega-3, found in oily fish, and also phospholipids, which are very rich in eggs. While these foods could be classed as ‘brain foods’, the brain also needs antioxidants to protect these complex fats, and a steady supply of glucose, best provided by eating low-glycaemic-load carbohydrates, so foods such as berries and oats help the brain function.”

Holford says most people are achieving well below their full potential for intelligence, memory, concentration, emotional balance and general happiness. “Optimum nutrition can sharpen up your mood and your mind, even if you feel ‘all right’,” he says. “Feeling just ‘all right’ isn’t all right. You should, and can, feel alert, energetic, happy and unstressed, with a clear mind and a sharp intelligence.”

Holford believes changes in nutrition, as well as chemical imbalances, underlie many mental health issues: “How we think and feel is directly affected by our chemistry. It used to be thought that all the thinking is done by neurons in the brain; we now know that the digestive system contains 100 million neurons, and produces as many neurotransmitters as the brain. The gut, for example, produces two-thirds of the body’s serotonin, the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter. So you don’t just need to eat the right food to feed your brain; your digestive tract is literally your second brain. Every time you eat something, it sends signals to the brain because the gut and the brain are in permanent communication.”


The trap many of us fall into when preparing for exams or a stressful workload is dosing up on large amounts of coffee or sugary drinks, but the brain consumes more glucose than any other organ. In a sedentary day, your brain can consume up to 40 per cent of all the carbohydrate you eat. Ever wondered why you feel ravenous after an exam or a big day at work? Any imbalance in the supply of glucose to the brain and you can experience fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, excessive sweating (especially at night), poor concentration and forgetfulness.

“Eating right, even the night before a big meeting or exam, can make all the difference,” says Holford. “Eating scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and oatcakes, perhaps with a berry compote, would provide much-needed essential fat, phospholipids, amino acids and antioxidants, plus a good supply of slow-releasing carbohydrate.”


An estimated 257,000 Australians currently live with dementia. That figure is expected to soar to about 981,000 by 2050. Dementia is the third leading cause of death in Australia, after heart disease and stroke. An estimated 35.6 million people worldwide are living with dementia; Alzheimer’s disease is one of its most common forms.

While there is no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, Johan Vos, an advocate for Alzheimer’s sufferers, says taking charge of your diet is one way you can control the risk of developing the disease, or delaying its onset. “Polyunsaturated fats containing omega-3, such as those found in fish and oils, have long been regarded as ‘brain food’, and as little as one serving of fish a week may reduce your chance of developing dementia,” he says.

On the other hand, research produced by pharmacologists at Temple University in Philadelphia showed that a diet rich in methionine, an amino acid typically found in red meats, fish, beans, eggs, garlic, lentils, onions, yoghurt and seeds, increased the risk of developing dementia. A group of mice on a high methionine diet had up to 40 per cent more amyloid plaque in their brains, which is a measurement of how much Alzheimer’s disease has developed. The researchers emphasised that methionine is an important amino acid for the human body and stopping intake altogether won’t prevent Alzheimer’s, but that people with a diet high in red meat, for example, could be at more risk.

“How you eat is important as well,” says Vos. “Studies have shown that social stimulation significantly reduces cognitive decline, so make time to eat with friends and don’t be afraid of a glass of wine; red wine contains the antioxidant polyphenol, which may reduce the rate of progression of dementia when consumed in moderation.” A 2010 study performed at Columbia University Medical Center showed the Mediterranean diet may help adherents avoid the damage to the brain – dead tissue known as brain infarcts – that affects thinking and memory. The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals, fish and monounsaturated fatty acids (such as olive oil); and low in saturated fatty acids, dairy products, meat and poultry. It is also typified by moderate alcohol intake.

Study author Nikolaos Scarmeas compared the damage wrought on the brain by not following this diet to that caused by high blood pressure. An earlier study conducted by Scarmeas and his colleagues found that men and women who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet were 40 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Nutritionists from the University of Illinois also reported last year that age-related inflammation in the brain – resulting in memory deficits – is reduced by a diet rich in the plant compound luteolin; found in carrots, capsicum, celery, olive oil, peppermint, rosemary and chamomile.

While we all know an apple a day is good for the body, a regular glass of apple juice could also help keep Alzheimer’s away. In Jean Carper’s book 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s (Little, Brown, 2010), she cites research from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, in which scientists spiked the drinking water of old mice with apple juice concentrate and found the production of acetylcholie in the brain increased.

Acetylcholie is a neurotransmitter essential for forming memories and learning. A daily dose of beet juice is also recommended, to increase blood flow (or perfusion) to the brain. Along with celery, cabbage and other leafy greens, beets are high in nitrate – which convert to nitrites when exposed to good bacteria in the mouth. Nitrites help open blood vessels, increasing blood flow and oxygen.

A study published in the journal Nitric Oxide: Biology and Chemistry shows that the purple vegetable can aid in warding off dementia thanks to its nitrate content. Researchers tested adults aged 70 and over for two days, feeding half of them a high-nitrate breakfast including beetroot juice, and the other half a low-nitrate breakfast. Brain scans showed better blood flow to the frontal lobes of the brain – an area commonly associated with dementia – in those who had a high-nitrate breakfast. “There are areas in the brain that become poorly perfused as you age, and that’s believed to be associated with dementia and poor cognition,” says Daniel Kim-Shapiro of the Center for Translational Science in Functional Health at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.


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