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Holiday Food Is Brain Food

Although surprising, many traditional holiday foods such as turkey and cranberries benefit your heart and your brain. The magic ingredient—antioxidants.

This may come as a surprise to you, but some of the foods most likely to enliven the holiday table are really good for you and can deliver a bundle of benefits to your heart and your brain. As a matter of fact, generally speaking, what's good for your heart is also good for your brain.

From stuffing to cranberries to red wine to hot chocolate, and even that last sip of coffee, there are many traditional dishes that boost blood flow to your most oxygen-hungry organs. These foods can preserve and even enhance mood, memory and other mental functions. Call them brain savers!

Take stuffing. Turkey's traditional Thanksgiving partner—what makes turkey interesting at all to most people—is rich in antioxidants. Bread crust is packed with them, far more so than the less chewy inside of bread.

Antioxidants are premiere disease-fighters and anti-aging agents. They are compounds that scavenge free radicals of oxygen, unstable molecules given off by the body's many metabolic actions. Free radicals are thought to be responsible for making cholesterol harmful to arteries and the heart—and for impairing memory and movement with age. They are particularly drawn to the fat-rich membranes of nerve cells through which all brain activity takes place. They are implicated in immune dysfunction and in cataracts and macular degeneration of the eyes.

The body manufactures some antioxidants, although the brain needs to import those it needs from outside. Under conditions of stress, the body's ability to produce antioxidants is impaired. Fruits and vegetables are the richest source of antioxidants.

Cranberries virtually top the list of antioxidant-rich foods. Scientists recently developed a way of measuring the antioxidant content of foods, called ORAC, for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. Cranberries outpulled some highly touted antioxidant rich goodies, including strawberries, spinach, raspberries, broccoli, beets, red grapes and cherries, among 11 others.

High-ORAC food may help slow the aging process in both body and brain. Most Americans average about 1,670 ORAC units daily. Increasing fruit and vegetable intake can double antioxidant activity. One cup of blueberries—first cousin to the cranberry—alone supplies 3,200 ORAC units.

Studies in animals suggest that cranberries are particularly neuro-protective, good at protecting against chronic age-related afflictions like loss of coordination and memory. They protect brain cells from the free-radical damage that normally occurs over time, thereby preserving cognitive and motor functions.

Compared with animals fed a standard diet, aging animals given cranberries showed actual improvements in normal age-related declines in working memory, reference memory, balance and coordination. They were able to keep on learning.

The antioxidants in cranberries belong to a group of chemicals called phenols. The strongest of these, and most extensively studied, are procyanidins and anthocyanidins, which give cranberries and blueberries their deep color. They seem to be particularly adept at turning off a brain enzyme (xanthine oxidase) that actually stimulates the creation of free radicals of oxygen.

But, there are many other antioxidants in cranberries, and they are just now coming under scrutiny for their function. Researchers increasingly believe the combinations of nutrients found in food are more protective than individual nutrients taken alone.

One antioxidant compound in cranberries actually helps ward off urinary tract infections. It actually blocks some harmful bacteria from attaching to the cells lining the urinary tract.

Cranberries are so powerful in preserving brain function, researchers recently found, that by their antioxidant action they can reduce the severity of brain impairment following strokes. They protect against the brain cell damage that usually occurs in the early stages after a stroke. Exposure to a concentration of cranberry extract equivalent to about half a cup of whole cranberries resulted in a 50 percent reduction in brain cell death.

And, go ahead, finish it all off with a cup or two of coffee. Researchers have identified a new antioxidant in coffee that is particularly potent in preventing colon cancer.

Or, savor a cup of hot cocoa. Made with about two tablespoons of pure cocoa powder, it tops both red wine and tea in antioxidant power—two times more than red wine, two to three times more than green tea and up to five times more than black tea. Something about heating the cocoa brings out the antioxidants in it!