It’s not a myth — the right foods can super-charge your memory, thinking and problem solving. Learn what to eat to upgrade your brain power!
Do you sometimes wish you could boost your grey matter with more RAM, speed and processing ability? Although you can’t install a whole new operating system like you would do in a computer, you can upgrade your brain function using the foods you put on your plate.
“Healthy foods are now linked with slowing the ageing process in your brain,” says Catherine Itsiopoulos, Professor and founding head of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. “The right food may enhance brain function, and help protect your memory, as well as your ability to think clearly and quickly. In the long term, a healthy diet also appears to protect against conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.
Whether you keep forgetting names or can’t concentrate at work, changing your diet really can help. To help keep your brain in peak condition and firing on all cylinders, try these five key brain-power strategies.
1. Join Club Med
Foods like dolmades, paella, grilled octopus salad, ratatouille, stuffed peppers and tomato bruschetta do much more than just satisfy your taste buds.
“Research suggests the Mediterranean diet increases brain connectivity, promotes better cognition and can also delay normal brain ageing by 10 years, possibly more,” explains Itsiopoulos. “This appears to be due to its high levels of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components, such as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, carotenoids and flavonoids that are found in vegetables and fresh fruit, and polyphenols found in wine, legumes and nuts.”
Before you reach for a big bowl of pasta, consider this: “When people think of the Mediterranean diet, they think of special-occasion meat dishes like lasagne or roasted lamb, but the traditional diet was in fact largely vegetarian,” says Itsiopoulos. “Each person ate half a kilo of vegetables per day, often in casseroles, where you would get many different types of vegetables, such as peas, carrots, artichokes and zucchini.”
They also ate plenty of dark, leafy greens. “Endives, chicory, silverbeet, spinach and other wild greens were picked from the fields and regularly eaten,” Itsiopoulos explains. “They are high in healthy nutrients called lutein and beta-carotene.”
All these healthy nutrients are the likely reason that the Mediterranean diet appears to offer some protection against degenerative brain diseases such as dementia.
“A recent systematic review of 11 studies worldwide showed that when people closely follow a Mediterranean-style diet they have a 50 per cent reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” says Itsiopoulos. “In another study of 7500 middle-aged people, those on Mediterranean diets had improved memory scores.”
Try these delicious, Mediterranean-inspired recipes!
“The smooth running of the brain relies on a constant supply of glucose from the blood,” says Ngaire Hobbins, dietitian and author of the books Eat to Cheat Ageing and Eat to Cheat Dementia (both $29.99, self-published).
Whole grains, brown rice, pasta, rye sourdough, starchy vegetables, bread and fruit provide the brain with a steady source of fuel. Low blood glucose, which can occur when you skip meals, challenges your ability to think because the fuel supply to the brain is severely reduced.
High blood sugars lead to an excess of blood glucose circulating in the blood, which is also bad news for brain function. “High blood sugars can upset the fine balance of a number of important systems in the brain,” Hobbins explains. “The results have been linked to dementia.”
Carbohydrates also support calmer brain chemistry, which boosts clearer thinking. “This is because they trigger the release of an amino called tryptophan. This enters your brain and helps you to produce serotonin, which is known as the ‘happiness hormone’.
3. Eat more brain-boosting nutrients
The right nutrients protect your grey matter from ageing. They also help your brain make neurotransmitters, which allow communication between brain cells, improving memory and thought processing. These nutrients include:
These fats include fatty acids called DHA and EPA, which are found in high concentrations in the brain and have vital roles in cognitive functions. Good sources include oily fish, grass-fed meats and poultry, egg yolks, flax seeds, walnuts and leafy green vegies.
Vitamins such as B1, B3, B6 and B12 are found in foods like fortified breakfast cereals, whole grains, nuts and meats — and they’re pivotal to brain function. They also help to reduce levels of a harmful chemical called homocysteine, which can compromise cognition.
Minerals that are important for brain function include iodine (eg. from seaweed and seafood), iron (red meat), zinc (oysters and red meat), magnesium (soy beans, nuts and seeds) and also selenium (Brazil nuts and fish). These key minerals help in everything from the repair and maintenance of brain cells, to better oxygen uptake in the brain.
These nutrients protect cells and promote efficient blood flow through the brain. People with low levels of antioxidants (such as vitamin A, C and E), may have poorer memory and lower cognitive abilities.
Many intensely coloured foods are well known sources of antioxidants. Choose coloured fruit and vegetables like berries, red apples, dark leafy greens, egg yolks, green herbs, black olives, multicoloured lettuce, black and green tea, turmeric, dark chocolate and red wine.
4. Stay hydrated
“Your brain cannot fire on all cylinders when you are even a little bit dehydrated,” says Hobbins. “Without adequate hydration, brain neurons just can’t communicate with each other, which after all is what cognition is all about.
“Dehydration also affects blood flow through the brain, which results in a release of stress hormones that also affect production of neurotransmitters.”
How much fluid do you need? Most people should aim for six to eight glasses or cups of liquid each day. But it doesn’t all have to come from water. “You get the fluid you need from many different sources,” says Hobbins. “That includes all sorts of drinks — including tea, coffee, juices and milk — and many different foods such as fruits, soups, desserts, jellies and casseroles. For most people, a drink with each meal as well as something in between should give you enough fluids.”
5. Think like the Japanese
People from the island of Okinawa off Japan remain lean all their lives. They also experience low rates of heart disease, dementia and cancers of the colon, breast, ovaries and prostate. Their food mantra? ‘Hara Hachi Bu’, which roughly translated means, “Eat until you are only 80 per cent full”.
“The Okinawa diet reminds us that it is eating patterns, not individual foods, which create a healthy diet,” says Alan Barclay, Science and Regulatory Affairs Consultant at the Glycemic Index Foundation. “Their low-fat diet contains plenty of plant foods and healthy sources of protein, such as fish, as well as carbohydrates, including rice and sweet potato [which has a low glycaemic index].”
To benefit from the Okinawan approach, use a smaller plate to serve smaller portions. When you feel pleasantly full, stop eating, regardless of what’s left on your plate. Your waistline will benefit too. This is a win-win for your grey matter as well as your figure — because a healthier weight has been linked with lower incidence of conditions such as dementia.
What is the MIND diet?
This brain-friendly style of eating is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet mixed with the DASH (Dietary Approaches To Stop Hypertension) diet.
“Research that involved 923 elderly people showed that 4.5 years later, those who followed a MIND diet had a 53 per cent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Professor Itsiopoulos says.
The main principles of the MIND diet are:
Eat more of the brain-healthy food groups: Green leafy vegetables, other vegies, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine.
Cut back on the five less-healthy food groups: Red/processed meats, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast food.
10 brain-boosting commandments
Want to eat to improve your concentration, memory and thinking throughout your life? Follow these tips:
Eat vegetables with every meal, and include legumes in two meals a week.
Eat oily fish twice a week. Good options include Atlantic and Australian salmon, canned sardines and canned salmon. Canned tuna is not as high in omega-3, but is still a good choice to include in your fish serves.
Choose wholegrain breads and cereals. Low-GI carbs provide your brain with the fuel it needs for thinking.
Enjoy fresh fruit every day. Have fruit and nuts as snacks or desserts.
Try to serve smaller portions of meat (beef, lamb, pork and chicken) and less often — limit to two to three occasions per week.
Enjoy dairy foods in moderation. Eating 200g of yoghurt every day helps provide good healthy gut bacteria. Keep your servings of cheese small (about 30–40g per day).
Drink plenty of water. Dehydration affects your thinking and concentration.
Eat until you’re about 80 per cent full. Listen to your body’s hunger cues to stop yourself from eating too much.
Add extra-virgin olive oil to meals. Aim for 60ml every day.
Snack on nuts. Walnuts are especially rich in brain-healthy omega-3 fats.