What good is having a great body if you don't have the brain function to match? I don't want my clients or indeed myself to fall into the 'meathead' stereotype and neither should you!
What we put into our body has a direct impact on not only our physique, but also the types of thoughts we are having, how well and clearly we think and the quality of our cognitive processing. (1) In this article, I am going to share with you what I believe are amongst the healthiest foods you can possibly eat to optimise brain function, memory, cognitive ability and are neuroprotective of certain degenerative diseases. First though a quick disclaimer:
The following list of foods aren't inherently magical and will not enhance the way you look aesthetically if eaten out of context with regards to your overall daily energy needs. This is important because many of these foods listed below if eaten without regard to quantity, can pack on calories very fast due to their high energy density. The list of foods here are certainly beneficial for brain health, but that doesn't mean that you have to eat all of them every day all of the time, or even that including some less nutritious, highly palatable food in your diet will be inherently bad for you. I want you to think of your 'diet' as a whole when assessing how healthy it is, rather than looking at singular foods in isolation and without the context of the bigger picture. If you've understood this though, the list below would be a great addition into your hopefully 'inclusive' rather than 'exclusive' diet and way of approaching nutrition as a whole. The following list is also not the be all and end all, and eating a predominantly whole food type diet, rich in colours and variety will ensure you are getting a wide spectrum of antioxidants and phytonutrients that your body can use to fight oxidative stress in the brain and have you functioning at your very best.
Notice the 'dark' in the title and not just, "Sharif said chocolate is good for me so pass me the Galaxy Bubbles". When buying dark chocolate, you should ideally be looking out for the percentage of cacao that is has, as that is the active ingredient we are after for brain benefits. Aiming for over 80% whilst is an acquired taste, is what will yield the best benefits. The flavonoids present in cacao gather inside the areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory and just like green tea, help slow down age related mental decline. (2) Chocolate really becomes 'unhealthy' when food manufacturers add in a bunch of sugar, fat and salt to make the product taste unbelievable and light up all the feel good pathways like Dopamine in the brain (3) Even then, this type of chocolate isn't bad for you in the context of a well managed calorie controlled diet, the problem lies however in the fact that it is far more addictive and thus easier to over consume than the dark stuff I'm recommending here.
These dark berries have long been symbolic of health and longevity. The antioxidants in them inhibit oxidation, which is essentially one of the primary ways that the brain degenerates over time. The compounds in blueberries act against this very process and can reduce or delay age-related neurodegenerative diseases. The interesting thing about blueberries in particular, is that some of the antioxidants inside them may improve the way the brain 'communicates' with cells and other parts of the body (4). When in a fat loss phase due to their slightly higher caloric load, I may not opt for including them quite as much as I do when trying to build muscle or keep my weight stable. Instead, opting for raspberries, strawberries and blackberries may be a better option here due to them being lower in calories, yet still being high in micronutrition and protective properties for the brain.
Fruits possess various chemicals such as antioxidants and polyphenols, which reduce and balance the effect of hormone in brain responsible for brain disease. This natural remedy is cheap, easily available, nontoxic, and easy to prepare and provides good mental health as compared to other remedies - (5)
Although not a very popular part of the animal compared to the muscle meats, organ meats are cheaper and generally have more nutrition. Think about how a predator kills it's prey in the wild...The kidney and liver are devoured first before the other meaty parts of the animal. Packed full of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals, organ meats often contain a lot of beneficial oils such as DHA which are responsible for a huge number of positive benefits in the brain. Not only this, but they are typically also high in vitamin B12 and folate which if deficient, can have direct negative impacts on the brain. (6) The properties found in organ meats can help to fight depression and fatigue in the brain.
The active chemical inside Curcumin - a yellow chemical produced by certain plants and used in a lot of traditional Middle-Eastern dishes. Turmeric is resposible for improving memory, being anti inflammatory, easing depression and even helping the brain grow new cells. In countries such as India where the consumption of Curcumin is very high, the rates of Alzheimers disease are also very low. I can probably count the number of supplements I keep in my regime year round on one hand, but Turmeric makes the list. Just make sure it is taken alongside black pepper extract to improve the absorption into the body. (7)
Rich in antioxidants, polyphenols (which help the human body fight disease), caffeine and also contains the amino acid L-Theanine. Due to the caffeine content in green tea, it can affect your alertness, performance and focus. L-Theanine is an amino acid which works synergistically with caffeine to help 'calm' or naturally reduce some of the unwanted side effects (jitters, stress etc) which caffeine can bring, allowing you to 'relax' into the cognitive enhancement that the drink provides. (8) L-Theanine can increase a neurotransmitter in our brain called 'Gaba'. When Gaba increases, anxiety levels decrease and this will obviously help you feel relaxed. (9)
'Gut Health' is all the rage at the minute and for good reason. The gut by some researchers is being called 'The Second Brain'. This is because the gut has a nervous system of it's own called the centric nervous system (ENS) containing 100 million cells responsible for thinking, remembering and learning. Ever had a gut feeling about a certain situation, person or action you chose to take? Now it looks like there is some science behind that. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha and kimchi are all awesome for gut health and thus brain health due to their probiotic properties. Other foods such as yogurt, (due to the live cultures) and the skins on fruits and vegetables are excellent for gut health and thus brain health too.
Taken together, a growing body of evidence indicates the potential of fermented foods as functional foods for the brain and cognitive health - (10)
Back to that awesome fatty acid again that provide building blocks for the brain. Responsible for increased lifespan and longevity, heart health and brain and eye development. (11) A combined total of 2-3 grams of EPA/DHA per day is needed for optimal health and function and is one of the non negotiables I get my clients to adhere to each and every day, irrespective of what phase of training they are in. Oh and for you muscle heads out there, more and more research is being shown that the Omega-3 fatty acids have an impact on anabolic signalling in the body, and consequently muscle gain. (12)
Good sources of DHA are oily fish such as salmon (wild if possible), mackerel, eggs, algae, flaxseeds and chia seeds and walnuts in particular. You can also supplement with fish oil if you feel you don't get enough through diet alone. Where possible, make sure the fish oil is third party tested and is contained in a dark jar away from sunlight, as too much can make the fish oil turn rancid and you actually end up absorbing far less than you would have liked.
Including and rotating the above foods in your diet will ensure your brain is functioning optimally so you can enjoy a healthy mind as well as a healthy body. It's also important to remember that food is only one of the ways in which we can boost our brain health and increase lifespan and longevity. The Three S's are also very important for optimal brain health. The Three S's include being social with friends and loved ones, ensuring you get 7-9 hours of sleep whenever possible and lastly managing stress levels appropriately with tools such as meditation, mindfulness and other relaxation techniques. All of these can have a synergistic impact on the way our brain functions and are important to stay on top off.
I hope you've found this beneficial and I've got you to think beyond simply calories and macros when it comes to the foods you are selecting.