Feed Your Brain Cells
The healthy brain also relies on good nutrition. Here are some of the best gastronomic ways to nourish it:
Roughly 50 to 60 percent of the brain’s overall weight is pure fat (the rest is a mixture of protein and carbohydrates). The brain uses fat as insulation for its billions of nerve cells. The better insulated a cell, the faster it sends messages and the speedier your thinking. Getting enough healthy fat in your diet is essential for brain health — but not all fat is created equal. (For more on how healthy fats benefit overall well-being and weight loss, see “All About Oils” and “Weight Loss Rules to Rethink” in the April 2007 and October 2006 issues, respectively.)
Like your car’s engine, your brain relies on good fuel. Put in high-quality gas and it’ll purr like a well-honed machine. But feed it junk and it spurts and sputters like a clunker. Good fats are premium gas for the brain. Any source of omega-3 fats, such as walnuts, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, or dark, leafy greens, will help your brain run smoothly. But fish provide the brain with its favorite fat, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — which accounts for roughly half of its overall fat content.
“DHA is far and away the most important nutrient for brain health,” says neurologist David Perlmutter, coauthor of The Better Brain Book (Riverhead Books, 2004). A June 2006 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition bears that out: People who ate an average of 2.7 servings of fish a week reduced their risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias — illnesses that result in brain function decline in 4.5 million Americans — by roughly 50 percent. (For folks who don’t eat fish, and for people who are concerned about mercury contamination, such as women who are pregnant or wanting to conceive, as well as children, algae-derived DHA is a good alternative.)
On the flip side, bad fats are the brain’s rotgut gas. These saturated and trans fats — plentiful in processed foods, red meat and whole-fat dairy products — inflict double damage on the brain. Bad fats make bad cellular insulation, which creates sluggish thinking.
Deprive the brain of enough healthy fats, and memory and learning suffer. In an April 2007 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, researchers monitored the diets of 2,251 people for nearly 10 years and discovered that those who ate the least good fat were most likely to experience a loss of “verbal fluency,” a marker of brain health.
When it comes to good fat, it’s OK to indulge, says Perlmutter, who recommends looking to the Mediterranean diet (rich in whole foods and olive oil) for inspiration. “Too much fat is better than too little, and nothing is worse for the brain than a fat-free diet.”
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