Food for Thought?

Can what goes in the belly really affect your brain? Definitely! One of the best ways to preserve your brain and nervous system is to give them a steady supply of essential nutrients. Here’s what should be on your plate to keep your mind sharp.

Feast on Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts

Brain cells called neurons are particularly vulnerable to oxidation by free radicals. These rogue molecules attack cells much like oxygen “attacks” a freshly cut apple, turning it brown and “aging” it prematurely. Antioxidants, found in abundance in most fruits and vegetables and in nuts and beans, neutralize free radicals.

You can get your fill of three particularly important antioxidants—vitamins C and E and the mineral selenium—by filling your plate with fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Aim for: 7 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, plus a handful of nuts almost every day.

Eat Some Spinach

Popeye had it right: Eating lots of spinach does make you stronger, at least mentally. Spinach-rich diets have proven particularly useful in helping patients recover motor skills like walking following a stroke or other neurological damage, and at least one enzyme in spinach has also proven effective in recovering memory in rats.

Aim for: Make spinach at least one of your 7 to 10 daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

Fish for Omega-3s

The brain contains tremendous amounts of fats, so it comes as no surprise that healthy fats in the diet benefit your “think tank.” Brain cells are lined with omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation. These same fats help keep blood vessels elastic so oxygen and nutrients can flow upstairs unimpeded.

Aim for: Two fish meals a week. Bake, poach, or broil fish instead of frying, or pan-fry it in a little olive oil.

Sprinkle On the Cinnamon

Pop a stick of cinnamon chewing gum the next time you have to take an exam or recite a poem from memory. One study showed that when volunteers chewed cinnamon gum before being tested on various tasks, they performed better than those who chewed no gum or gum of other flavors (including peppermint). Researchers hope to someday use cinnamon to help the elderly improve brain function and performance. Cinnamon also has anti-inflammatory properties that may help keep your brain sharp when you add the spice to your meals.

Aim for: Sprinkle cinnamon on sliced fruit, hot breakfast cereal, lattes, and even soups and stews.

Drink to Your Brain

Although too much alcohol is bad for the brain, some studies have found that people who have one to two drinks a day have a lower risk of memory loss than those who never drink. It may be because alcohol helps thin the blood, preventing clotting that can block the flow of all-important oxygen to the brain.

Aim for: Up to one drink a day for women, two for men. One drink is either 150 millilitres of wine, 45 millilitres of 100-proof liquor, or 360 millilitres of beer.

Add a Dash of Turmeric

The bright yellow spice called turmeric, used in traditional Indian curries and other dishes, gets its lovely hue from an antioxidant compound called curcumin. Animal studies have shown that curcumin helps prevent the formation of amyloid, the gummy protein buildup that can clog neural pathways in the brain. Curcumin also helps prevent oxidation and inflammation.

Aim for: 1 tablespoon (15 millilitres) of turmeric daily, about the amount found in two traditional curry dishes. You may also opt for up to 400 milligrams of curcumin in supplement form, but check with your doctor first.

Have a Bowl of Oatmeal

Where memory is concerned, the best breakfast cereal may be good old-fashioned oatmeal. In one recent study, when children ate oatmeal rather than cold cereal or no breakfast, their memory skills improved by 5 to 12 per cent. In other research, the more whole grain the cereal, the more it appeared to improve memory. Scientists suspect that it may be the high fiber and protein content of oatmeal and whole-grain cereals that helps slow digestion, releasing glucose (blood sugar) more gradually into the bloodstream. The brain uses glucose as a source of energy, and a steady flow appears to help the brain retain information for tasks that require memory skills.

Aim for: One bowl of oatmeal or other cereal with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. Top it with blueberries and toasted nuts for a real brain boost.

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