When you’re eating, do you ever think about the health of your brain? One of the reasons I became a dietitian is my interest in how foods affect our body’s ability to function. Substances like potassium, magnesium, and sugar seem chemically simple at first. But did you know these are the substances that determine whether or not our brain cells function properly?
Have you noticed that certain foods look like body parts? Take the walnut for an example. Walnuts look like little brains with folds and divided halves, just like the brain. And interestingly, the nutrition in walnuts helps brains function and grow.
Eating food for their function has been around for thousands of years. An ancient philosophy known as ‘The Doctrine of Signatures’ states that plants that have similar looks and shapes to various body parts can be used to treat ailments for those parts of the body. And although there are some major scientific flaws to the doctrine of signatures, studies have demonstrated the ways food prevents, delays, or leads to cognitive conditions.
There is no single food that can give you a perfect memory or stop you from developing Alzheimer’s disease. However, studies have helped reveal some foods, like the five listed below, boost brain health.
Kimchi is a fermented blend of cabbage, garlic, onions, ginger, and red peppers. Even though, fermented foods have higher association with gut health, there’s a growing body of research suggesting that probiotics also have a wide range of positive effects on mental health.
Not all kimchi is created equal, but scientists have identified 970 different bacterial strains in kimchi! That’s a lot of potential for one food.
In a study published in Journal of Applied Microbiology, researchers tested and confirmed that one of the strains, Lactobacillus pentosus to determine may have the ability to help protect against memory loss.
A little nervous to try kimchi? Try these kimchi pancakes. I recently tried them at our local H-Mart and have found the spiciness from the kimchi is a great way to incorporate fermented vegetables into my meals.
I already mentioned walnuts protecting brain health but the list also includes almonds and hazelnuts. And even though sunflower seeds are technically not a nut, these seeds are a very rich source of vitamin E so they belong on the list too. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, suggests that higher intakes of vitamin E may help prevent cognitive decline.
(Mix walnuts into this trail mix for a brain-friendly snack!)
Oily, fatty fish
The main source of oily, fatty fish include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, and sardines.
These types of fish are good for brain health because they provide essential omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. And they provide these fats in a ready-made form, which enables our body to use it easily. Lower levels of DHA have been linked to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and memory loss.
(Try this Asian grilled Salmon from Ina Garten.)
Another food that kind of looks like a brain. This leafy green is a member of the cabbage family and is a good source of vitamin K, which is known to enhance cognitive function and improve brain health.
And for those who don’t eat fish, brussels sprouts contain another type of omega-3 fatty acid, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Although, this type of omega-3 fatty acid is not as readily available in our body as the ones found in fish, the body converts ALA to the more active form. The process makes Brussels sprouts a good source and by eating a few servings a week, you can easily meet your omega-3 fatty acid needs.
(Try roasting your sprouts with bacon! YUM!)
We have been eating oatmeal for thousands of years and for good reason. The brain needs a constant source of energy to stay focused and energized and to avoid the midday slump. Oats provide a slow and steady stream of glucose, which leads to several hours of sustained brain power.
Oats also contain choline, which helps produce neurotransmitters that prevent against memory loss and memory functions. Research continues to show how choline influences brain structure and function, even during the fetal brain development phase.
(Try these overnight oats with blueberries and walnuts!)
The proof of how brain function is related to what you eat is still in its infancy. I don’t think it’s total coincidence that certain foods look like body parts. This nutritionist believes we’ll continue to see more food-disease relationships as we dig further into brain health.
Eating a nourishing, well-balanced diet gives our brain the best boost at being healthy.
Julie Harris, RD, LDN, CPT develops recipes and writes blogs for angrybbq.com. And is the owner of Kokoro Nutrition, a blog focused on bringing out your inner athlete. Julie lives in Frederick and enjoys yoga, running, cooking, and spending time outdoors.