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Every September is the beginning of a new academic year – an opportunity to create new habits and routines, after all of the summer festivities. With the new school year, it is a great time to refocus on eating well for best mental and cognitive health for every member of the family. Not only does improved nutrition enhance learning, it also decreases the number of absences due to sickness and improves overall behaviour, in children and adults alike. Refuel your brain with these five tips for best brain health:
1. Balance your meals.
Stable blood sugar levels are critically important for brain functions such as thinking, memory and learning. The brain depends on glucose, as its main fuel source. If there is not enough glucose available, the brain’s ability to produce neurotransmitters, the brain’s signalling chemicals, decreases. Low levels of glucose can also lead to a loss of energy for proper brain function, resulting in poor attention and cognition.
Ensuring meals contain relatively equal proportions of complex carbohydrates, protein and fats allows for balanced blood sugars for hours at a time (which also reduces the need for snacking). We need to stop eating dessert for breakfast! Most “breakfast foods” like cereal, toast, muffins and waffles are rich in simple carbohydrates, which usually results in chasing your blood sugar all day long. Better breakfast options include protein shakes made with plain yogurt/protein powder(for the protein), fruit (1/2 cup) and coconut milk or avocado (for the fats), veggie omelette, toast with almond butter and berries, oatmeal with berries (with a Tbsp or two of nut butter or nuts/seeds added in), or chia seed pudding.
2. Ditch the sugars.
Probably the worst food you could eat for your mental and physical health is sugar. It is shocking to learn that in North America, the average child under age 12 eats about 49 pounds of sugar annually in addition to 32 pounds of high fructose corn syrup, only 3 pounds less of each than the average adult (compared to 8 pounds of average broccoli consumption).
Sugar has many effects on a child’s learning ability. It decreases attention span and memory. Eating sugar at an early age has been shown to impair memory function long-term as well as increase inflammation in parts of the brain. Other effects of sugar consumption an increased incidence of depression, anxiety, addiction and dementia. All good reasons to cut back, if not eliminate it entirely from your diet. I recommend using stevia glycerite to sweeten food & drink, which gives the sweetness without the compromise.
3. Add more fish.
We can’t make omega 3 fatty acids, so we have to get it through dietary sources such as wild salmon, flaxseed and walnuts. When it comes to memory and brain health, most of the research indicates that is is specific to the effects of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It is not only neuroprotective but is a major structural component of brain tissue.¹
Though there is no upper limit, a little can go a long way. According to one study in Rotterdam indicated that even one meal per week consisting of fatty fish could reduce cognitive decline by up to 60%.²
People with Alzheimer’s have been shown in several studies to have severely low levels of DHA in key parts of the brain needed for memory formation.³,⁴
So not only is it important not only to increase DHA intake, but also drastically reduce intake of omega 6 fatty acids commonly found in vegetable oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, and other common polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s). Historically, the human diet consisted of omega 3 intake in a ratio of 1:1 to omega 6 fatty acids. With processed foods this has shifted upwards to a ratio of about 1:16 to 1:36. ⁵
DHA has also shown to benefit cognition in both older and younger rats in the absence of neurodegenerative disease. DHA is good for both the young and the old, and the sick and the healthy.⁶,⁷
4. Take a multivitamin/mineral.
Once you have the major macronutrients covered (though eating a balanced plant-based diet will usually suffice), ensure that your micronutrients aren’t lacking. Iron deficiency, for example, even in early stages can decrease dopamine (one of the four main brain neurotransmitters) transmission, thereby decreasing cognition. Cognition and mental concentration are also shown to be affected by deficiencies in B vitamins (especially thiamine), vitamin E, iodine and zinc.⁸,⁹,¹⁰
5. Hydrate adequately.
Most North Americans are chronically dehydrated and mistake thirst signals for hunger signals. Even the most minimally dehydrated brain is 15% less efficient than a hydrated one.
The best choice for drinking for people of all ages is pure, filtered water. Ideally, about 50% of your body weight in ounces everyday. While plain water might get tedious, there are plenty of sugar-free flavoured water options now available, which makes it easier to change things up. With autumn around the corner, other good choices include bone broth and herbal teas.
(1) Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, et al. Consumption of fish and omega-3 fatty acids and risk of incident Alzheimer disease. Arch Neurol. 2003 Jul;60(7):940-6.
(2) Kalmijn S, Launer LJ, Ott A, Witteman JC, Hofman A, Breteler MM. Dietary fat intake and the risk of incident dementia in the Rotterdam Study. Ann Neurol. 1997 Nov;42(5):776-82.
(3) Soderberg M, Edlund C, Kristensson K, Dallner G. Fatty acid composition of brain phospholipids in aging and in Alzheimer’s disease. Lipids. 1991 Jun;26(6):421-5.
(4) Prasad MR, Lovell MA, Yatin M, Dhillon H, Markesbery WR. Regional membrane phospholipid alterations in Alzheimer’s disease. Neurochem Res. 1998 Jan;23(1):81-8.
(5) Kris-Etherton PM, Taylor DS, Yu-Poth S, et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the food chain in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):179S-88S.
(6) Morris MC, Evans DA, Tangney CC, Bienias JL, Wilson RS. Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study. Arch Neurol.2005 Dec;62(12):1849-53.
(7) Gamoh S, Hashimoto M, Sugioka K, et al. Chronic administration of docosahexaenoic acid improves reference memory-related learning ability in young rats. Neuroscience. 1999;93(1):237-41.
(8) Pollitt E. (1993). Iron deficiency and cognitive function. Annual Review of Nutrition, 13, 521–537.
(9) Chenoweth, W. (2007). Vitamin B complex deficiency and excess. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Greenbaum, L. (2007a). Vitamin E deficiency. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Greenbaum, L. (2007b). Micronutrient mineral deficiencies. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Bryan, J., Osendarp, S., Hughes, D., Calvaresi, E., Baghurst, K. & van Klinken, J. (2004). Nutrients for cognitive development in school-aged children. Nutrition Reviews, 62(8), 295–306.
Delange, F. (2000) The role of iodine in brain development. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 59, 75–79. Sandstead, H. (2000). Causes of iron and zinc deficiencies and their effects on brain. Journal of Nutrition, 130, 347–349.
(10) Lieberman, H. (2003). Nutrition, brain function, and cognitive performance. Appetite, 40, 245–254.
Frisvold, D. (2012). Nutrition and cognitive achievement: An evaluation of the school breakfast program. Working Paper, Emory University.