Nutrition for Life - 2016


Brain Power!

By Parul Kharod

From children to aging senior citizens, it is important to maintain a healthy brain for every age group.

The brain is the most complex organ of our body. It starts developing before birth. It continues to grow for a few years after we are born and is about 80% developed by age 2 and 90% developed by age 6. Although the size of the brain does not increase much after age 6, structural changes in both the major gray and white matter compartments continue through childhood and adolescence. Research by neuroscientists over the past 25 years shows that different parts of the brain mature at different times and the brain has the resiliency to a lifelong ability to learn new things.

In young children, the health of the brain is vital to learning and development. As we age, we need to keep the brain healthy to ward of diseases such as Alzheimer's.

National Institute on Aging published a study in February 2015 to study what foods helped with preventing mental decline in seniors over a period of 4-5 years. It was found that a Mediterranean style diet with emphasis on heart healthy and anti-inflammatory foods is the best for protecting the brain. These same foods have also been proven to help younger children with ADHD get more focused and improve memory.

So what can we do to boost the brain power?

Healthy Carbohydrates

The human brain consumes the largest portion of the total energy that is generated in the human body.

The weight of the brain is only 2% of the total body weight, but it uses about 20% of the total calories. The energy is vital for maintaining healthy brain cells and fueling nerve impulses.

Our brains (and our muscles) use glucose as its primary fuel. The brain needs glucose 24/7. That is why we need complex carbohydrates in our diet. Too many simple sugars cause blood sugar fluctuations. In young children, it may cause hyperactivity and lack of focus. Not eating adequate amount of carbs can cause fatigue and irritability.

The best sources of healthy carbohydrates are whole grains, beans, and starchy vegetables. As these foods are also rich in fiber, they travel slowly through the digestive system and steadily supply glucose to the brain. Research shows that fueling the brain with slower-burning carbohydrates like oatmeal, instead of faster-burning foods like sugary cereals, helps maintain concentration and attention. Other healthy whole grains include bulgur, buckwheat, brown rice, millet, quinoa, rye, and whole grain breads and pasta. Sweet potatoes and baked potatoes with skin are also good sources of carbohydrates and fiber. Beans and lentils are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates and fiber.

Without carbohydrates, our bodies can't produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes us tranquil and more able to cope. Fiber helps the body absorb carbohydrates more slowly, keeping serotonin levels steady. Whole grains also contain selenium, a mineral that regulates the function of the thyroid gland, helping to control mood. To balance blood sugars, do not skip meals or have long gaps between meals. Eat small balanced meals at regular intervals.

Healthy Fats

The human brain is regarded as the fattest organ in the human body. About 60% of the human brain is comprised of fat which is the highest concentration of fat that is present in a single organ in a healthy human being. That is why deficiencies in certain types of fats can have a big impact on intelligence and behavior. The healthiest fats for the brain are fats that are naturally present in foods such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocado.

Omega-3 fats are important for brain health. You can get these from walnuts, flax seeds and chia seeds. Walnuts are rich in serotonin-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium. Studies have shown that magnesium deficiency may cause depression, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia. Walnuts help stabilize mood by regulating blood sugar levels and alleviating mood swings. Almonds contain zinc, a key nutrient for maintaining a balanced mood. Avocados are great for brain health and anxiety. They contain potassium which helps naturally lower blood pressure. Avocados also contain beneficial B vitamins and monounsaturated fats that are needed for neurotransmitter and brain health. Pumpkin seeds are a great source of healthy fats, protein, and iron. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds can be used as source healthy fats in case you are allergic to nuts.

The benefits of flax seeds have been proven with numerous research studies on aging and heart health. Flax seeds have omega 3 fats. They also have soluble fiber. Use ground flax seeds for maximum benefit. They can also be used as an egg substitute for baking.

Vitamins & Minerals – Anti-Oxidants

Fruits and vegetables! “Eat a Rainbow"! Try to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables from all different color groups. Each natural color gives us a different phytochemical that helps reduce inflammation in the brain and body. Vitamins and minerals keep the brain in tune. They are important for building and rebuilding the brain cells.

Berries, especially blueberries, are proven to help relieve stress and anxiety. They help maintain healthy brain cells and are important for vision. All green leafy vegetables have numerous heart and brain healthy properties. There are too many different vitamins and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables to list them all here. In general, remember to eat more vegetables than fruit in a day. Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits has been proven to improve brain performance.

Water

About 75% of the total brain mass is comprised of water which regulates various functions in the brain. Therefore it is important to stay well hydrated. Sugary beverages such as soda, Gatorade, Kool-Aid, juice, sweet tea etc. provide empty calories with no nutritional benefits. Diet drinks and beverages with artificial sweeteners and artificial colors are not healthy for the brain either. Refined sugars and chemical additives are called anti-nutrients that can rob the brain of essential nutrients. So it is important to stay away from these beverages and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day.

Summary

• Eat a variety of whole grains and beans for healthy carbohydrates, minerals and fiber
• Eat a variety of nuts and seeds and avocado for healthy fats
• Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables for essential vitamins and minerals
• Drink adequate amount of water
• Avoid fried foods and trans fats - “partially hydrogenated oil"
• Avoid artificial colors and chemical additives
• Avoid refined sugars and simple starches
• Be physically active – move more
• Be mentally active – do crosswords, Sudoku, or any challenging hobby

-- Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist and works as a Clinical Dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital in Cary and Raleigh. She can be reached at parulkharod@gmail.com