October 25, 2011

Brain Food: Smarter, Faster, Stronger

Print More

During all-night cram sessions in the library the day before a prelim, the valuable cognitive effects of brain food could be helpful. Thoroughly researched and proven to exist, brain foods generally improve the brain’s functions, like memory, creativity, and learning.

There are many different types of brain foods to choose from, each with its own unique cognitive effects. For example, blueberries contain high levels of polyphenols, which are antioxidant compounds proven to help long-term memory, learning capabilities and recovery from brain damage. In fact, a study published in the December 2009 issue of Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that a diet high in polyphenols (found in teas, wine, olive oil, nuts, fruits and veggies) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in some fish and soy beans) helps against cell damage seen in degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

To boost alertness, memory and stress resistance, eating foods that contain the elements of important brain neurotransmitters is beneficial for overall brain performance. For example, eggs contain the fat-like B vitamin choline. Studies show that choline supplementation improves memory and reaction time in aging animals, elevates human memory and cuts down lethargy.

According to the Director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, “There are certain elements that are very good for the brain, like Omega-3 fatty acids.”

Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the essential fatty acids that the brain needs to function properly. Omega-3s have been proven to enhance your brain by building gray matter and cell membranes, improving synaptic connections and arteries, balancing mood, and reducing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. High levels of Omega-3s are found in kiwi, fish (especially salmon) and walnuts.

In 2006, researchers at Tufts University investigated the cognitive effects of DHA, the most abundant Omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes in the brain.  They found that people with high levels of DHA in their blood had nearly a 50 percent reduction in their risk of developing mental degenerative diseases.

In other studies, DHA was proven to reduce oxidative stress while simultaneously magnifying synaptic plasticity, learning and memory.

Wansink says foods with high Omega-3 content are “perhaps the best brain foods there are.”

However, knowing about the valuable effects of different types of brain food is only half the battle. Implementing them correctly and efficiently into a diet is another struggle.

According to Wansink, mindset is a vitally important factor in creating a healthy diet.

“There’s two important segments of consumers that would shop for brain food, or shop for any healthy food, and one is the patterned consumer,” he said.

Wansink described the “patterned consumer” as someone who has made it habit in their lives to make healthy food choices, whether it is consuming products with high Omega-3 content or picking foods with high antioxidant compound levels.

Wansink described the second group as “medicinal consumers.”

“They are the people who are treating brain food not as an end in itself but as a means to an end. They are going to eat it as long as they feel the need and then they will stop right away,” Wansink said.

“They essentially use the food as medicine. And that’s the problem with this second group. They dip their toe into the market and as soon as they adjust to the water they leave the market,” he said.

Not as savvy as the first group, the second group of consumers lacks what Wansink describes as a “patterned intake routine.”

In achieving a healthier dietary lifestyle, “it would be best if the consumer did see a positive health change as a patterned part of their life,” he said.

However, in making these healthier food choices, it can be frustrating for consumers because there are often no immediately observable results. In terms of weight loss, Wansink researches the realtionship between making small, healthy adjustments in dietary choices, like using a smaller plate, and when the consumer can see a noticeable effect from the change.

“If you do any of these things up to 15 times a month nothing happens. It has a slight return from 15 to 20 and from 20 to 25. But something really magical happens with a person who makes this adherence for 25 or more days a month. And all the sudden, that’s where you see the most dramatic change,” he said.

In changing one’s diet, brain food has been shown to be particularly beneficial when eaten routinely over a long period of time.

Wansink says, “Eating healthier doesn’t have to be drastic. Making a small change and keeping it is a lot better than transforming your eating life and doing it for a month.”

Original Author: Jessica Harvey