by Maria LaPiana
Jan 22, 2013
07:20 AMWell, Now
Food for Thought
Wonder how the humble blueberry got so big? Why all those pint baskets have taken center stage at the supermarket? And what all the fuss is about?
Every week, it seems there’s more evidence to back up findings that blueberries are not only delicious (that, we knew) but rich in special nutrients that increase the production of brain cells, improve learning and motor skills and help reverse age-related declines in cognitive thinking.
Pass the pie?
Not so fast. While blueberries are among the so-called “brain foods” whose efficacy is pretty much undisputed, it’s important to look at nutritional studies with a critical eye, says May Harter, MS, RD, CD/N and president of the Connecticut Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Nutrition is a science, and in science things are always changing,” says Harter, a registered dietitian at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain. “There’s always research being done on what we eat and drink, and how much we eat and drink, and often there’s conflicting information or, worse, misinformation.”
As advocates for nutrition education throughout the state, Harter and her colleagues “rely on evidence-based information that has been thoroughly researched. We look at the number of subjects in a study and the scientific method, among other considerations.”
By that measure, Harter says there’s proof positive that many foods really do improve memory and enhance concentration; some have been shown to slow the cognitive impairment that comes with age; a few may even stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
We asked Harter recently to share her insights on the foods most often touted as good for our gray matter, and she had a lot to say.
“As a registered dietitian, I always go back to basics. You can never, ever go wrong by eating foods that are unprocessed and naturally bright in color,” she says. “You should always think of a rainbow when you look at the food on your plate.”
What does she think about mom’s old “don’t skip breakfast” adage? “It’s absolutely true. Breakfast really is one of the most important meals of day,” she says, “and it should include carbs. People make a big mistake, in weight management sometimes, and reduce or eliminate carbs from their diets, but we need them for fuel. It doesn’t matter if they come from whole grains, like whole wheat bread or brown rice, or low-fat dairy products. We all need them for our brains to function properly.”
Here are a few more essentials Harter says to put on your shopping list:
Why: For years we’ve known that fish is brain food. It’s rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), omega-3 fatty acids that combine to help with brain function.
How much: A 3-to 4-ounce serving of cold-water fish, like salmon, sardines, albacore tuna or mackerel twice a week. Wild-caught fish are healthier than those that are farm-raised; and fish-oil supplements are acceptable for those who don’t like fish or are allergic to it.
Why: Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries and red grapes are packed with antioxidants that protect the brain and are thought to reduce the risk of disease and illness.
How much: Half a cup to a cup a day can help with short-term memory and balance. More is better, because they’re also high in fiber, low in calories (and they taste so good).
Why: It’s high in antioxidants that lower the amount of protein that builds up plaque, the kind linked to memory loss and nerve damage in Alzheimer’s patients.
How much: One to two cups a day will boost memory and the ability to concentrate.
Why: Harter says she’s always believed that dark chocolate should be part of a healthy diet. The darker the better, because it’s the cocoa and flavonoids that are most beneficial, counteracting damage done by inflammation, and boosting the circulation of blood to the brain.
How much: A small amount works wonders: Four to six Hershey’s Kisses or squares of dark chocolate per week will do the trick.
Why: Dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, bok choy, arugula and collard greens are high in iron, which produces red blood cells that carry oxygen to the brain.
How much: The USDA Food Pyramid recommends three cups of dark green vegetables per week, but many experts think we should eat at least five servings per day.
Why: Avocados are an excellent source of monounsaturated fat that promotes blood flow (plus oxygen and nutrients) to the brain, helping us to think and remember details. They can also help prevent high blood pressure, which may put us at risk for cognitive decline.
How much: Up to one a day—in salads, on sandwiches or in dips.
Why: Contrary to popular belief, the caffeine in coffee is beneficial in that it increases alertness and enhances brain function and focus. In addition, studies have shown it improves memory in older subjects.
How much: A cup or two a day is fine; be wary of the added calories that come from adding sugar and cream.
Why: High in flavonoids and antioxidants that reduce inflammation and damage to healthy cells, apples are exceptionally healthful.
Also a good source of vitamin C, they’ve been shown to possess qualities that fight dementia.
How much: If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, why stop at one? Apples are a great source of fiber, plus they provide a sense of fullness, which can also help with weight management.
Why: Like other whole grains, barley is one of the good carbs that helps brain cells function more effectively. By causing glucose to be released into the system, barley helps produce chemicals known to improve memory.
How much: At least a serving a day will have a benefit; consider adding cooked barley to salads or using an alternative to oatmeal.
Why: Monounsaturated fats like olive oil are good for memory and slowing the aging process. In a study by Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, older adults with higher intakes of olive (and other monounsaturated) oils consistently scored better on short mental tests.
How much: Just a little, for cooking or drizzled on salads. It retains its nutrients even when heated, but moderation is still key, says Harter.