Prof. Michael Crawford – IFBB – Institute for Food, Brain and Behavior (UK)

Foods that Feed the Brain

When we think about healthy eating, most people think about it in relation to preventing disease, weight gain or loss and fighting infection.

Healthy eating is not just important for or physical health in terms of preventing obesity or Type 2 diabetes but equally important for our brain health.

The brain is one of the most important organs in our body, controlling our everyday thoughts, behaviour and actions and there are certain nutrients in foods which can help it function better.There are certain foods which can inflame your brain, causing it to not perform at its best, and instead leaving you to feel fatigued, sluggish, irritable and maybe even depressed.

Brain health is just as important as our physical health and we need to look after it by feeding it with food which helps it feel alive and keep it healthy.

Some of these foods include omega-3 fatty acids. These are anti-inflammatory and protect the brain from becoming inflamed and unhealthy. Omega-3 fats are healthy fats which you can only obtain from eating certain oily fish and seafood.

Can you pause for a moment and think of which fish might be oily?

A clue is they are not white fish such as the cod in fish fingers. Some examples of oily fish are salmon, trout, fresh tuna, sardines, anchovies and mackerel.  Omega-3’s can also be found in oysters, crab, shrimp, clams, mussels and lobsters. How many of these do you eat and how often? It is recommended that we eat at least 2 portions of oily fish per week to receive adequate amounts of healthy and essential omega-3 fats. The types of omega-3 fats which help brain function are called EPA and DHA – these are highly unsaturated fatty acids.

A different Omega-3

There are other plant-based sources of omega-3 called polyunsaturated fatty acids which can be obtained by eating certain nuts (such as walnuts), seeds (such as pumpkin seeds or flax seeds) and green leafy vegetables such as kale or algae such as spirulina.

Vitamin D matters

Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine vitamin” – it really important for our mood, memory and well-being and although it is present in foods in small amounts, our bodies can make it from direct sun exposure on our skin. However, too much sun exposure can also be problematic and about 65% of people living in the U.K has low levels of Vitamin D due to lack of adequate sun exposure. Consequently, we need to eat lots of Vitamin-D containing foods such as oily fish such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon, fish oil, egg yolks and liver. A lack of Vitamin D is linked to low mood as well as bones and muscle pain / weakness which can lead to bone deformities such as the development of rickets in children.

Mood Food

You may have heard of the expression Food equals Mood! It really does. Certain nutrients in food have influence over 6 major neurotransmitters in your brain which are responsible for happiness, social engagement, sleep, motivation, memory and learning, the ability to plan ahead, be calm, focus and pay attention!

These neurotransmitters are called dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, GABA, glutamate and aspartate.

Low serotonin for example, is a common cause of depression, anxiety and irritability. Complex carbohydrates from plant foods such as sweet potatoes and apples or a square or two of dark chocolate can help. Other foods to help boost serotonin include oranges, apples, pears, peaches, blueberries, bananas, grapes, figs, mangoes, pineapples.

Protein-rich foods such as seafood, poultry – such as turkey, and red meat, along with drinking green tea can help boost dopamine.  Foods which may help you to stay focused and sharp include egg yolk, liver, salmon and shrimp. Foods rich in GABA include broccoli, nuts and lentils. Junk and processed foods such as artificial sweeteners, processed lunch meats, sausages and food preservatives contain amino acids which stimulate neurotransmitters leading to damage to neurons and cell death.

Other vitamins such as Vitamin C,  B6, B12, folate and iron matter for a healthy brain.

Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, drinking blended smoothies and eating lots of oily fish will all work together to feed the brain the fuel it requires to be smart, healthy and happy!