We’ve all heard those statements about brain foods over the years, one being “eat fish before an exam”, but how much do we really know about the value of these foods for our brains? The brain, as with our other organs, needs the nutrients that food provides in order to function optimally. Certain foods do help maintain concentration levels, reduce the risk of brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, keep our sugar levels consistent and provide us with the much needed vitamins and minerals to keep us going through the ups and downs of the year.
#1 Choose whole grains
While most of us probably know that whole grains in the form of brown rice, wholewheat pasta and bread are better for us than refined grains such as white rice, pasta and bread, why is this so? Whole grains have a low glycaemic index (GI), which in layman’s terms means they release glucose slowly into our bloodstream, giving us energy at a consistent level throughout the day. Refined grains cause a spike in glucose levels which then inevitably drop quickly leaving us feeling tired. Other food sources that contain glucose are bananas, beans and lentils.
#2 Find oily fish
Essential fatty acids, present in certain types of fish, cannot be made by the human body and so must be obtained through the food we eat. Omega-3 fats found in oily fish are vital for optimum brain function as they help the body rebuild brain cells, slow down the decline in memory and help us produce serotonin, a chemical released by the brain which makes us feel happy. The main sources of Omega-3 fats are found in salmon, sardines, pilchards, trout and mackerel. But, if you’re vegetarian, the good news is that these fatty acids can also be found in plants such as linseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and the oils made from these natural products.
#3 Bring home berries
Certain berries house a large amount of antioxidants. These are known to protect your brain from premature aging by improving cognitive functions such as memory, reasoning, numerical understanding and decision making. Antioxidants fight off free radicals which destroy brain cells, protecting our brains from damage. Blackberries, goji berries, blueberries, strawberries and cherries all contain antioxidants. Antioxidants are also found in vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and carrots, and in a variety of teas.
#4 Pick up some protein
Protein, found in meats and animal by-products, as well as legumes, help the body produce amino acids. Amino acids are produced when the body breaks down protein and make us feel energised. Protein also helps the body develop, grow and repair cells in order to maintain optimum functioning. Low levels of protein result in a slow metabolism, poor concentration levels, slow healing of wounds and a low immune system, none of which we can afford during exams or a busy time in the office. Protein can be found in numerous foods from red meat, chicken, and fish, to lentils, cheese, yoghurt, and eggs.
#5 Snack on pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds contain zinc, an invaluable mineral that helps our memory and decision-making skills. These small seeds are also full of magnesium which helps to reduce stress, B vitamins that improve our immune systems and energy levels, and the amino acid tryptophan, that turns into the ‘feel good’ chemical serotonin. Adding just a handful to your diet as a daily snack will help you through those busy times. So, if you’re busy writing exams or pushing through a hectic business season, give pumpkin seeds a try.
#6 Try out liver
Sally-Ann Creed, nutritional therapist, recommends liver. “Liver is the top super food for the entire body and brain. Rich in vitamins A, D, E, K, B12, folic acid and minerals like copper and iron, eating liver helps to neutralise toxins in order to protect the brain against oxidative damage. The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are stored for use by the body in small amounts as needed. Retinol, real vitamin A, is vital for learning and for good skin, but is also vital for brain function. The most nutrient dense food on earth, liver contains more nutrients gram for gram than any other food. A powerful antioxidant present in liver, CoQ10, also helps to prevent mental decline.”
So, if you’re busy writing exams or pushing through a hectic business season, don’t be tempted to reach for those sweets or chips and receive a quick energy boost and an inevitable energy low. Try adding some or all of the above foods to your daily diet for far more consistent energy levels to keep you going. And while the right foods can’t give you extraordinary brain power, they can ensure your brain is protected and utilised to its maximum capacity. Knowing how and why certain foods work to help your brain will make the choice to eat healthier foods far easier. With the amount of vitamins and minerals these food types include, it’s worth giving them a try and while on the topic of health, remember to protect yours with a solid Medical Aid package.
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