My mom still does the newspaper crossword puzzle. I don’t think she enjoys it, but she’s fully convinced that by crossing words in her mind will keep her brain sharp. She sometimes struggles to find the right words while she eats a familiar Venezuela food: tequeno—fried dough with cheese. Of course, I am shocked looking at this scene. Where are the antioxidants and food sources of omega-3 fatty acids to feed her brain?
Like most people, my mom does not relate what she eats with her brain health. Food is what gives us energy when we feel down, what we have to watch when losing weight, and what gathers people around a table. But how does food relate to remembering a doctor’s appointment next week, where you left your keys, or how to perform regular, daily activities.
“Our brains are seven times larger than they should be for an animal of our size. Just feeding our brains take a quarter of all calories we use at rest,” says William D. Lassek, M.D. and Steve J.C. Gaulin, Ph.D, authors of the book Why Women Need Fat.
Our brains are not just energy consumers, but they do need specific nutrients to properly function. Carbohydrates (the whole grain types) are required to avoid a “sugar crash” while healthy omega-3 fatty acids) particularly the DHA type) feed your brains neurons.
My mom may not think that she needs a diet for her brain, but what you eat—and how much—not only can affect your waistline, but also influence the how much you can recall from your recent office meeting.
In a recent study in The Journal of Nutrition, participants who had an average intake of less than 2,490 daily calories for men and less than 1,810 for women, showed better cognitive function, verbal memory, and executive functioning than those with a higher caloric intake. And a recent “Study of Aging” from the Mayo Clinic found overeating could double the risk of memory loss.
There are a variety of reasons a reduced calorie diet may improve brain function. One component is likely due to the overall decrease in sugary carbohydrates, which leads to less insulin release, less inflammation, and even a reduced risk of diabetes (which also increases risk for cognitive decline), according to Richard S. Isaacson, M.D., associate professor of Clinical Neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and author of Alzheimer’s Treatment, Alzheimer’s Prevention: A Patient and Family Guide.
IQ Food Bumper and Crasher
Cutting out calories from your daily intake may trim belly inches and make you smarter. Not bad! While keeping your daily caloric intake to around 1,800 for women and 2,400 for men will raise your IQ, there are some foods that help improve your memory and better recall information, while others can make this effort more difficult.
Studies in patients who are both at risk for Alzheimer’s disease—who are having mild memory loss—as well as in patients already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, have found that reducing the amount of simple carbohydrates like soda, white rice, and candy, can lead to improved memory function.
So what should you eat for a better brain? It depends on your needs.
What’s Your Brain Problem?
Moody: Omega-3 fatty acids—DHA and ALA—found in salmon, walnuts, and kiwi fruit has been shown to fight against mental conditions, such depression, mood disorders, and dementia. Likewise, folic acid, which is found in spinach, orange juice, lentils, and peanuts, is essential to prevent neurological disorders that can lead to a depression and other cognitive impairments, explains Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N.
Be smart: DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid type found mainly in fish, is the main component of the brain synapses. A lack of this essential fat has been shown to diminish intellectual performance, says Gidus who recommends 1,000 mg a day if you don’t eat deep-water fish regularly.
Where’s my keys?: Blueberries and strawberries are one of the highest food sources in antioxidants. Researches show that berries can reverse some effects of age-related brain decline. “Improving your memory and increasing your brain health can be as simple as eating ¼ cup of blueberries every day,” says Gidus. A daily multivitamin can also help as it can boost immediate memory, according to a recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Stay focused: Popeye ate spinach for instant muscles, but this vegetable can also pump up your memory and improve performance on learning tests. The secret? Its rich magnesium content. Gidus explains that magnesium deficiency has been associated with a lack of focus. And don’t forget eggs. They are rich in choline, a fat-like B vitamin that has been shown to enhance memory and minimize fatigue. Other choline food sources include milk, nuts, and meats.
Move Your Brain
While feeding your brain is important you also need to move your body. Regular physical activity modifies other brain functions. According to London researcher Archana Singh-Manoux, Ph.D., exercise sustains cerebral blood flow, increasing the supply of cerebral nutrients and facilitating neurotransmitter metabolism. All of these functions are related to our cognitive abilities. For example, a recent study from University of Illinois researchers determined that fitness training increased the cognitive performance and executive control processes, which are responsible for abstract thinking, planning and decision-making, and troubleshooting technical situations. Another exercise-brain study cited in the American Journal of Public Health reported that physical inactivity proved to be a risk factor for reduced cognitive functioning—more specifically, fluid intelligence in adults, or the ability to think abstractly and solve new problems.
While any type of exercise can shake your brain, but the more you master an exercise or a sport, the less you will tax your mind. So moving while learning something new is critical to work out the brain. Try a new Zumba, cross-fit, or yoga class. Or you can simply tweak one of your most common resistance exercises. Try this single leg Deadlift to DB Row to your regular workout routine. You will challenge not just your brain, but also your muscles.
As for my mom, I have her lifting some weight, but not successful with the new eating yet.
Single Deadlift to DB Row
You already know how to do a row and a deadlift so how you can give to these two exercises a spin? Perform a single leg deadlift with dumbbells in both hands for better stabilization. When you have lifted the leg completely by flexing your hips backwards—keep the back straight, chest up, and neck align with the spine—and perform a row where you fully contract the muscles of the back. Use your glutes and the hamstrings (the muscles of the back of your legs) to return to the standing position.
Perform one leg at a time. Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps. This exercise works the core, back and glutes-hamstrings—and the brain When you master it, do it by holding one dumbbell on the opposite arm to the leg that is planted on the floor. Tiny changes like this is all your brain needs to be challenged.
Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.