Sunday, December 13, 2009

Brain Food

While I'm here, I'd like to post on one of my favourite topics - the brain! It's a fascinating thing that is still being continuously researched and admired, and one topic I'm especially fascinated by is how to achieve optimal brain health! Now, that kind of topic could easily turn into a giant essay (or tome!), so for now I will just share a few nutritional tips.

In order to work, the brain needs plenty of fantastic nutritional goodies. Since this organ is mainly comprised of fat, it requires lots of healthy fats which make up the structure of nerve cell walls among other functions. These healthy fats include plenty of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which can be found in oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies) as well as walnuts, flax seeds, grass-fed animals, etc. Eating fish twice a week, putting flax oil in smoothies/overtop of food (once it has cooled down), throwing nuts into your oatmeal, salads, baking, snack mix, etc. are all great ways to ensure good Omega-3 intake. Oily fish is perhaps the ultimate #1 superfood for a healthy brain. Other healthy fats include nuts, seeds, unrefined high quality oils, and natural fats in general rather than the processed kind. A can of Pam or a tub of margarine call for cries of horror, whereas butter, coconut oil, and good olive oil will always be your friends.

Protein is required to create neurotransmitters, which are the brain's communication chemicals. As with fat, the main issue is to opt for high quality protein that hasn't been denatured by processing and poor cooking methods. Organic, free range, grass-fed, locally sourced from real farms rather than scary factory farms - this is all very important, and while high quality meats can cost more than the standard supermarket version, the health benefits (and ethics) are priceless. Vegetarian sources of protein, such as legumes, nuts, some grains (like quinoa), hemp seeds require proper preparation in order to be utilized by the body. Please don't forget to soak your legumes, nuts, and grains! I cannot say that enough. Vegetarians who eat eggs and cheese will enjoy these foods a lot more if they are from good sources. It's quite easy to find local free range eggs and you will see how much bigger they are and high much brighter the yolk is right away. Real cheese is not the stringy plastic found on many a pizza, but a fermented delicacy that can knock the socks off your taste buds with its various flavours.

Getting back on topic, the next category of nutrients is carbohydrates, which the brain uses as fuel. No wonder people on low-carb diets may find themselves feeling irritable and having low energy levels - they are running on empty. When it comes to carbs, the main thing is to go for the complex, unrefined type rather than the white and empty type. Whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, millet, oats, even whole grain pasta are all great and delicious choices that provide long-term energy, whereas white flour, white rice, cookies, crackers, etc. will not keep you going for long. Give your brain superb fuel, and it will reward you with brilliance :)

Now, what about those fruits and vegetables that we're always told to eat? Eating the rainbow is absolutely crucial because it provides us with loads of vitamins and minerals which we require in order for our bodies to function. They are like the little workers that come together to work all the machinery and make things happen. If some of them are missing, then the team cannot function as it should and the work doesn't get done. You can never eat too many veggies :)

Lastly, we also require some special dietary items that work to protect our brains (including delicate nerve cells). Dietary antioxidants are like superheroes that protect all the cells of our bodies, including brain cells, from free radical damage. Free radicals are unstable particles that come from all over the place - pollution, processed food, cigarette smoke, stress, chemicals, etc. Just breathing in and out naturally produces some free radicals, which our bodies instantly takes care of by using its supply of antioxidants. In order to have superb protection (especially in these modern, chemical-y times), we need to ensure that we eat plenty of antioxidant rich foods. This is not hard though as most whole foods (that have not been processed) provide us with antioxidants. The best sources are brightly coloured fruits and veggies, including blueberries, dark grapes and cherries, pomegranates, broccoli, tomatoes, and spinach. But really, just eat a nice variety of fresh produce (or frozen when fresh is not an option) and smile :) Other antioxidant rich foods include whole grains, nuts, legumes, spices (turmeric and ginger are superstars), and herbs. One more time - if you eat a varied whole foods diet, you're covered. Nothing to worry about.

I would also like to quickly mention fiber. We know it's good for digestion and gut health, but it's also really great for you brain! Toxins bind to fiber and are thus eliminated from the body, so they cannot pose a threat to that lovely brain. It is a very important protective factor that should never be underestimated :) One last time, a whole foods diet provides plenty of fiber so you don't have to sprinkle any dubious powders on your food.

Whew, we covered a lot there! I hope it was useful and that you now have some extra incentive to take a bite out of that big red apple or cook a big pot of soup :)

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