The brain is an energy-intensive organ, using around 20 percent of the body’s calories, so it needs plenty of good fuel to maintain concentration throughout the day.
What happens when a brain is fed poorly? Well, it functions poorly!
The diet of ancient humans is arguably a good model for what an appropriate nutritional paradigm might be for us today, since it is, after all, the diet that many millennia of natural selection molded the human brain and metabolic machinery to thrive upon. Paleolithic research suggests that the diet of early humans contained about equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fats, a ratio of 1:1 or at most 2:1. Today’s fear of saturated fat and cholesterol, and the heavy reliance on so-called “heart-healthy” vegetable oils—soybean, canola, safflower, sunflower, and other seed oils—has crowded out more beneficial fats and oils we once regularly consumed in fatty fish, eggs, dairy, organ meats, etc. This shift has tipped that natural omega balance to something on the order of 17:1 or more, and the consequences may have an impact on a panoply of disorders, including depression, ADHD, cognitive dysfunction, major affective disorders, and dementia.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT FATS
Because our brains are very fatty and need fat in order to function well, it is important to understand what type of fats are conducive to brain health and which fats are bad for our brains. Avocados, nuts, and seeds contain good unsaturated fats. Some unsalted nuts, such as peanuts, cashews, pecans, and almonds, also contain good or healthy fats.
The fat you want to avoid in large amounts is saturated fat such as butter, fatty meat, whole-fat dairy products, and coconut oil. We need some, but most Americans eat too much.
The worst fats are partially hydrogenated fats like trans fats, which are still found in some foods. Also, try to avoid mono- and di-glycerides. These fats have replaced trans fats in commercial cake mixes, frostings, and other foods. It’s also good to avoid any food that’s deep fried, because these fats oxidize over time and may damage our cells.
Here are some examples of foods that boost your brain health:
1. Fatty Fish
Omega-3s are found in high quantities in fatty fish. About 60 percent of your brain is made of fat, and half of that fat is the omega-3 kind. Your brain uses omega-3s to build brain and nerve cells, and these fats are essential for learning and memory.
Omega-3s also have a couple of additional benefits for your brain. For one thing, they may slow age-related mental decline and help ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds contain powerful antioxidants that protect the body and brain from free radical damage. They’re also an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, copper, and iron. (32). Each of these nutrients is important for brain health:
Zinc: This element is crucial for nerve signaling. Zinc deficiency has been linked to many neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.
Magnesium: Magnesium is essential for learning and memory. Low magnesium levels are linked to many neurological diseases, including migraines, depression, and epilepsy.
Copper: Your brain uses copper to help control nerve signals. And when copper levels are out of whack, there’s a higher risk of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
Iron: Iron deficiency is often characterized by brain fog and impaired brain function.
Walnuts are the top nut for brain health. They have a significantly high concentration of DHA, a type of Omega-3 fatty acid. Among other things, DHA has been shown to protect brain health in newborns, improve cognitive performance in adults, and prevent or ameliorate age-related cognitive decline. One study even shows that mothers who get enough DHA have smarter kids. Just a quarter cup of walnuts provides nearly 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of DHA.
4. Almonds and Hazelnuts
Almonds and Hazelnuts are two of the most concentrated sources of vitamin E available, and vitamin E intake is generally associated with less age-related cognitive decline. In one study, participants who received vitamin E improved statistically and clinically in some memory and verbal measures, while participants who received a placebo did not. A quarter cup of almonds or hazelnuts packs in nearly 50 percent of the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for vitamin E.
Peanuts have not been extensively studied as a brain-healthy food, but there is good reason to believe that they offer brain benefits. Peanuts are high in niacin (a half cup of peanuts offers about 50 percent of the RDA for niacin). Studies have correlated niacin deficiencies with a higher incidence of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. There has also been preliminary research that suggests that eating peanuts may help stave off Parkinson’s.