What Are Brain Foods?
There are many foods which improve brain function in some
way. A diet heavy in omega-3 fatty acids, for example, can help
keep the blood vessels of the brain clear of blockages and allow
nerve cells to function at a high level. So you may want to eat
your fish twice a week (A major source of omega-3s) or take a
It is equally important, however, to recognize the foods that
diminish brain power. Alcohol and some other drugs just kill
brain cells directly, but there are many less obvious brain-attacking
foods. Artery clogging foods can lead to restricted blood flow
to the brain, and high-glycemic-index foods can cause terrible
blood-sugar swings that make both your body and your mind irritable
For the impatient among you, I'll skip straight to the list
of good brain foods and foods that are bad for mental function.
Afterwards you'll find a more thorough explanation, if you want
Good Brain Foods
Bad Brain Foods
Artificial food colorings
Brain Nutrition Explained
As mentioned, alcohol just goes in and starts killing brain
cells. Nicotine causes constriction of capillaries, which restricts
blood flow to the brain, which reduces the delivery of good things
like glucose and oxygen. Hydrogenated fats are more subtle, causing
heart disease and general clogging of the arteries that eventually
results in the same effects long-term as the short-term effect
of nicotine. Since all three of these can kill you in addition
to hurting your brain, you may want to replace them with healthy
foods and drinks.
Artificial colorings and flavorings have their own bad effects
according to many studies, especially in children. The rest of
the foods on the "bad brain foods" list are bad because
of the unhealthy fluctuations in blood sugar levels they cause.
If you don't want to memorize the list, just remember to stay
away from all drugs, refined flour and sugar products (potatoes
aren't so good either, if you overdo it). Let me explain further.
Your brain runs on blood sugar, using an incredible 20% of
the carbohydrates you take in. It prefers to take it's blood
sugar in a certain way, however. Simply put, it likes a steady
supply, and dislikes wild fluctuations. Simple carbohydrates
- processed flour products and sugary foods - cause wild fluctuations.
These cause a rush of sugar into the bloodstream, which triggers
a balancing rush of insulin, leading to a plunging blood sugar
level (hypoglycemia ). This can cause the release of adrenal
hormones (called a "sugar high") that squeezes stored
sugar from the liver, sending blood sugar levels back up.
Now you're on a blood sugar roller-coaster, with "sugar
highs"and "sugar blues." The ups and downs of
blood sugar and adrenal hormones can also stimulate neurotransmitter
imbalance, causing you to feel fidgety, irritable, inattentive,
and even sleepy. This is not the most conducive state for efficient
brain function. Since simple carbohydrates have been implicated
in diabetes as well, you may want to consider cutting back on
Good Foods for the Brain
The best brain foods are complex carbohydrates. The molecules
in these are long, so it takes longer for the intestines to break
them down into the simple sugars the body can use. Because of
this, they provide a source of steady energy rather than a surge
followed by a plunge.
The rate at which sugar from a food enters brain cells and
other cells is measured by the "glycemic index" (GI).
Foods with a high glycemic index stimulate the pancreas to secrete
a lot of insulin , which starts the roller coaster. Foods with
a low glycemic index don't push the pancreas to secrete much
insulin, so blood sugar levels are steadier.
Fruits: grapefruit, apples, cherries, oranges, and
grapes have a low glycemic index. Whole fruit ranks lower than
juices, because fiber in the fruit slows the absorption of fruit
Cereals and grains: oatmeal and bran are best. Spaghetti
and rice have a relatively low GI. Corn flakes sugar-coated cereals,
and white bread have higher GIs.
Vegetables and legumes: Legumes, including soybeans,
kidney beans, chick peas, and lentils are great brain foods.
They have the lowest glycemic index of any food. Potatoes and
carrots have a much higher GI.
Dairy products: Milk products have low glycemic indexes;
higher than legumes, but lower than fruits.
How you prepare and eat your food also affects the way the
body and brain uses it. Eating sugary food after a meal of legumes,
for example, may slow the absorption of the sugar and prevent
the "sugar blues." Fats can also slow sugar absorption,
so ice cream will have a lower glycemic index than low fat yogurt
with sugary fruit. Over-cooking some starches can be similar
to pre-digesting them, thus causing them to feed their sugars
into the blood too quickly.
Proteins affect brain performance because they provide amino
acids, from which neurotransmitters are made. Neurotransmitters
carry signals from one brain cell to another. The better you
feed these messengers, the more efficiently they deliver the
goods. The amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine, are precursors
of neurotransmitters, the substances from which neurotransmitters
are made. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and it must be
obtained from the diet. Tyrosine is not an essential amino acid
because the body can make it if need be.
Some high protein, low carbohydrate, high tyrosine foods that
are likely to rev up the brain are seafood, meat, eggs, soy,
and dairy. High carbohydrate, low protein, high tryptophan foods
that are likely to calm the brain include: pastries and desserts,
bean burritos, chocolate, nuts and seeds (e.g., almonds, filberts,
sunflower and sesame seeds), and legumes.
From here it just gets complicated. People respond differently
to differing ratios of protein to carbohydrates in meals, and
there are also subtle sensitivities (not quite allergies) to
foods that vary from person to person. Experimentation is called
for, and since it is your body, you have to do it yourself.
A Final Note
In studies, children scored higher on tests when on a regimen
of daily vitamin supplements. "Experts" will tell you
that if you eat a balanced diet, you don't need supplements,
which, given the culture here, is really just a sales pitch for
vitamins here, isn't it? Who eats a perfectly balanced diet?
A final, final note. Putting the right food in helps, but
it's important to get it out too. That's why I nominate fiber
as the unsung brain food hero. I don't know how many times I've
heard or read about somebody's mind clearing up once their system
was cleaned out. When the research is eventually done in
this area, I suspect that it will show definite brain benefits
from having a digestive/elimination system that works efficiently.