Do you spend a lot of energy deciding what “not” to eat? This month I challenged readers to try a different approach. Rather than focusing on subtracting foods from your diet (no chocolate, potato chips etc.), try working on mindfully adding healthy food to your plate each day. These new habits can crowd out the old. I asked professor of psychology and neuroscience, Dr. Amy Jo Stavnezer, to help us understand the benefits of this approach to our brains and bodies. Here is what she had to say:
Dr. Albers: We often think about “healthy” foods as good for our body. Something that will keep cholesterol levels and our waistlines in check, but food also feeds our brain. How might the +1 days that I promoted this month impact that?
Dr. Stavnezer: You could not be more correct about feeding our brain. Our brain is only about 2% of our body weight, but it uses 20% of our energy. So the fuel that you choose matters a great deal. Adding healthy foods can have a positive impact on the functioning of your brain, cognitive abilities, mood and even the health of neurons (cells in the brain) and their connections with one another (which is what gives your brain it’s processing power).
This month you asked your readers to add a healthy food each day, with hopes that the healthy food might take up space that something less healthy used to hold. One day, you asked your readers to add an orange food: carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash (assuming you didn’t mean Mac and Cheese here); by adding one of those foods your readers added vitamins A, C and B6, carotenoids, the minerals potassium and manganese, fiber and protein to their system. By adding a green food they added vitamins A, B6, C, K, carotenoids, and folate.
Several of those serve as antioxidants (vitamin C, carotenoids, manganese), which we often see related to fighting illness and disease, but the brain makes good use of them as well. Antioxidants do the same thing for neurons as they do for other cells in the body, they protect from free radical damage. This is of great importance because the brain is highly susceptible to free radical damage due to the high level of cellular activity and other intrinsic factors. Vitamin B6 is involved in over 100 reactions associated with energy metabolism in our cells and helps to keep other chemical concentrations in check. Vitamin K helps to safeguard the insulation-like coating on neurons that increases their speed of communication and maintains healthy connections. Vitamin A helps neurons maintain their flexibility in making and changing connections points (referred to as plasticity) and supports the development of new neurons in certain brain regions.
Dr. Albers: What is the long term impact?
Dr. Stavnezer: I should be sure to note here that at first a slight drop in any of these vitamins or minerals is not going to have a noticeable impact on your daily functioning, but over a lifetime small bits of damage can multiply into large consequences. Our brain comes with a complete complement of neurons at birth and though their level and complexity of connections changes throughout life, we can not grow new brain cells in large enough numbers to overcome disease, damage or a lifetime of poor nutrition. Keeping a regular healthy diet, which can include mindful splurges at times, is just good brain health.
Here’s the other great news for those that added fruits and vegetables to their plates. Those foods keep your arteries clear, especially if they have displaced a less healthy food from your plate! Maintaining good blood flow to the brain is one key to successful cognitive aging (there are several keys), which is also why lifelong aerobic exercise is another key. A medically significant increase in blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes increases the number of dead cell clusters in the brain, increases the risk of stroke, is associated with an inferior recovery following stroke or head trauma, and decreases efficiency of the connections between neurons, which are responsible for memories, directional ability, carrying on complex conversations and the like. So adding fruits and vegetables is also having an indirect impact on brain healthy by keeping the blood, oxygen and nutrients flowing freely.
Dr. Albers:What is a great +1 food for our brains?
Dr. Stavnezer: Our brain loves omega fatty acids because the cells walls of all of our neurons are made up of lipids (fat), and yes, omega-3 and 6 are fats, but they are “good” fat. They do their job without increasing cholesterol or adding to atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries. In addition, they help reduce inflammation, which is really good in the brain since our skull gives the brain no room for swelling following damage. Omega-3 fatty acids are primarily sourced from fish and eggs and omega-6 from seeds, nuts and grains. Having a balance of these fatty acids is important for our brain, but western diets tend to overemphasize the 6s to the detriment of the 3s. Recent evidence indicates that fish oils aid the brain in cellular repair, decrease the cellular impact of stress, and improve cellular communication, all of which aid cognition, working memory and slow age-related decline.
There is a lot we don't know yet about how things influence the brain – but we do know that real food, whole food, is what humans have been eating for millennia. The environment within which the body and brain evolved did not include potato chips, cupcakes or vitamin-fortified cereals. It did include fruit, berries, nuts, spices, herbs, grains, vegetables and meat – foods that naturally contain vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and dozens of chemicals that we are just beginning to identify (polyphenols and micronutrients, for example). So try to take these vitamins and minerals in real food. Stick with the stuff that comes from the earth – there is clearly something in there that helped us survive until now.
Click Here: to See a Video of Dr. Albers Explaining 1 Easy Mindful Eating Tip
Dr. Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of 6 books on mindful eating. She's been a guest on Dr. Oz and is frequently quoted in Shape and Prevention magazine.