Feed your brain: 10 Foods that Build Your Brain Strength

Feed your brain: 10 Foods that Build Your Brain Strength

Are you a healthy eater?

This is a guest post by Julie Zimmer.  I asked her to share her wisdom on health by telling us some good foods to eat when we need our brain to be at its resilient, productive best.  Do you eat these 10 foods?  (BONUS: at the bottom of the post… 2 healthy recipes you can try)

About Julie Zimmer, HealthContinuum.Org

julie
Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience as a nurse, both directly in intensive/coronary care (medical-surgical) and as an advisor in public health.  Julie has degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN).  Julie has a wonderful blog on health at HealthContinuum.org.

Feed your Brain: 10 foods that Build Brain Strength

photo credit: lablasco
Yummy Healthy Food (see recipe below) photo credit: lablasco

We often think about reshaping our bodies through exercise, but have you ever thought about reshaping your brain?

The human brain has an incredible ability to adapt and react and make new connections and pathways. With the right kind of stimulation and the right kind of mindset, you can reshape your brain. A healthy lifestyle and a good diet will help you unleash the power inside your brain.

Check your sleep habit before changing your diet

The better you sleep, the healthier you eat. This is a scientific fact. If you are sleep deprived, your body secretes a digestive hormone called ghrelin, which increases your appetite. It also releases less leptin, a hormone that signals you to stop eating when you are full.

When these imbalances occur, your metabolism is out of whack and not only do you crave sugar and high fat foods, you eat them in large quantities to combat fatigue. With insufficient sleep, your body also secretes fewer feel good hormones – serotonin and dopamine. Your body will ache and feel cheated as it relies on these hormones to feel great. To compensate, you will eat plenty of sugary foods to re-capture that good feeling sensation. Should you eat this way for too long, unleashing the power inside your brain becomes a struggle.

What about glucose and caffeine?

Refined sugar contains glucose and fructose. When you eat sugary foods, your brain uses glucose for energy. Both glucose and caffeine react the same way – they quickly boost your mental ability and energize you, but their effect is short lived. Over a period of time, too much glucose or caffeine impairs mental and physical functions. I know what you’re thinking; there’s a lot of talk about coffee being good for you. A bit of coffee is fine; it contains antioxidants and it gives you a kick-start. Health experts recommend a daily intake of 300 mg of caffeine (3-4 cups) and 30-45 gm of sugar.

Ten foods to feed your brain

Your brain needs healthy blood vessels as much as your heart does. Choosing foods that are good for your heart will also be good for your brain. The key to healthy eating is moderation and variety.

  • Omega-3s: without these fatty acids, your brain is like a car running on empty. When a car is empty, it stops. Your brain won’t stop, but it can shrink. New studies show an increase in the hippocampus (where the brain forms and stores memories) and in gray matter volume in people with higher than average levels of omega-3s in their blood. Fatty acids are vital to brain tissues and cells. To get plenty of omega-3s in your diet, eat fish twice a week or take fish oil supplements. Other sources are nuts and seeds, flaxseed oil, squash, kidney beans, spinach, broccoli and soybeans.
  • 7592786440_15c43c16bd_o
    Colorful food, photo credit: lablasco

    Colorful fruits and vegetables: contain antioxidants, the substances that protect your brain against cell damage by blocking free radicals. Free radicals are the “bad guys” that work with damaged cells that cause diseases, from skin wrinkles to cancer. Examples are dark green leafy vegetables, berries (especially blueberries), bananas, apricots, melons and mangos. Red coloured foods, such as tomatoes and red cabbage are rich in lycopene – a very powerful antioxidant.

  • Pumpkin seeds: when I crave a crunchy snack, I reach for pumpkin seeds instead of pretzels or crisps. Just a handful is packed with protein, fiber, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Both seeds and oil are rich in zinc and fatty acids. Either raw or roasted, they’re nature’s perfect snack that promotes healthy skin, improves your brainpower and protects against diseases such as high blood pressure, arthritis, osteoporosis and cancer. The seeds are high in tryptophan, a compound that prevents depression and helps you sleep at night. At Halloween, when you carve that big pumpkin, think twice before throwing out those seeds.
  • Eggs: contain B12, lecithin and essential fatty acids that protect against brain shrinkage, which is often seen in Alzheimer’s. As we age, our body’s natural choline weakens. Egg yolk is high in choline, which nourishes brain cells and improves memory. Since the yolk is also high in cholesterol, healthy people shouldn’t eat more than three eggs a week. Other sources of choline are soybeans, peanuts, kidney beans, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and black beans.
  • Avocados: this fruit long deemed “too fat” has been put on the back burner. It’s time to bring the avocado at the front for brain health and anti-aging. It contains monounsaturated fats (good fat) and fiber. It’s high in vitamin E, potassium and magnesium. It has anti-inflammatory properties; it lowers blood pressure and improves circulation to the brain. A few slices of avocado per day and as a side dish is sufficient.
  • Whole grains: complex carbohydrate sources give a steady stream of energy to your brain. They contain fiber, vitamins and minerals. Choose whole-wheat bread and whole grain pasta, cereals or rice. Go brown instead of white. Wheat, bran, wheat germ, barley, oatmeal and quinoa contain folate and B vitamins that help brain function and memory. Lentils, whole beans and starchy vegetables are also complex carbohydrates.
  • Green tea: the anti-inflammatory compounds and catechins in the tea can keep your mind sharp and fresh. Green tea helps you to relax and resist mental fatigue. Drinking two cups of green tea per day can help prevent cognitive impairment.
  • Dark chocolate: a bit of dark chocolate is fine. Dark chocolate with 70 percent or more pure cocoa is naturally high in flavonols that increase blood flow to the brain and boost concentration. Before reaching for coffee, try a piece of chocolate instead.
  • Red wine (or grape juice):  red wine in moderation (1 glass a day for women; 2 for men) can improve memory and cognition. Red wine is rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant that improves blood circulation in the brain. It can reduce the risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s. Cranberry juice, berries, grapes and peanuts contain resveratrol.
  • Spirulina:  the last, but not the least. My neighbor, out of concern, gave me a brochure on spirulina and she urged me to get some for my family and me. My two girls and I are vegetarian and my husband has significantly cut back on meat. We are all taking spirulina on a daily basis and we feel great.  Spirulina is a blue-green algae and is 100% natural. It is often described as the most complete food source. Spirulina comes in capsules, powder or flakes. It can be dissolved in juices or sprinkled on food. It is very high in protein, minerals and vitamins, including B complex vitamins. It is a source of iron, folic acid, magnesium and calcium. It is high in beta-carotene, an antioxidant vitamin important for your eyes. There is increasing evidence that spirulina prevents cognitive diseases and maintains brain health.

What foods or supplements have helped you unleash your brainpower?

Feed your brain with these recipes: 

Julie Z’s Quinoa and Veggies

I started making quinoa dishes 22 years ago. Quinoa is a complex carbohydrate high in protein, vitamins and minerals. It has a nutty taste and a chewy texture and is a favourite among vegans and vegetarians. Adding vegetables gives you a complete and healthy meal. Today, there are many ways to make quinoa. Here are two versions that serve 8:

photo credit: lablasco
Quinoa and Veggies, photo credit: lablasco

1. The summer salad version

The trick to a good quinoa salad is to make sure that the quinoa isn’t mushy.

  • 2 cups quinoa
  • 4 cups of boiling water (add salt or bouillon cube)

Before adding the quinoa to the water, dry roast the quinoa in a stick-free pan on high heat. Stir frequently until they pop frequently and smell like popcorn.  Some will turn dark brown. Then add the to the boiling water and lower the heat.

On low heat, let the quinoa simmer with the lid off and until all the water is absorbed (15-20 minutes).  Do NOT stir them – they will get mushy. To check if there is no more water, poke and make a well to see the bottom of the pot. If you can’t see any water, then they are done. Take the pot off the heat and give the quinoa a good gentle stir.

Transfer the cooked quinoa to a large bowl. Let cool and toss gently several times.  You can repeat tossing as they cool.

Dice a variety of fresh vegetables that you like and add to the quinoa:

  • 1 large cucumber
  • 1-2 tomatoes
  • 2 green onions or 1 red onion
  • 1 large green or red pepper
  • 1 shredded carrot
  • Plenty of finely chopped cilantro (to taste) or parsley or both.

Wisk together:

  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice.
  • 3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 pressed garlic (optional)

Add this to the salad with sea salt and freshly ground pepper and stir. Sprinkle with roasted sunflower seeds.

2.  The roasted vegetable version

Preheat oven at 400°F (200°C).

Chop the vegetables and set aside:

  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into ¼ inch thick slices
  • 2 medium carrots cut into ¼ inch think slices
  • 1 medium red onion, cut into ¼ inch thick slices
  • 1 red bell pepper, cut into ¼ inch thick slices

Prepare quinoa as above. While quinoa is simmering place the vegetables on a large baking sheet and toss with 3 tablespoons coconut oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast vegetables in oven until edges are golden, about 30 minutes, stirring half way through roasting.  Cool.

Pour the quinoa in a large bowl when ready. In a small bowl whisk 1 tablespoon tomato paste and ¼ cup fresh lemon juice. Pour the mixture over the quinoa and stir until incorporated.  Add the roasted vegetables, sea salt and fresh pepper.  Serve at room temperature.

Check out more of Julie’s writing at her blog, HealthContinuum.org.

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