Notes from Youville: Food for Thought

Youville Place offers advice on eating your way to a healthier brain.


Who doesn’t want a healthy brain? According to recent research, we can make our brains healthier by watching what we eat. Like other organs in our body, the brain requires specific nutrients and adequate blood flow, both of which are influenced by diet. By supplying our brains with the right foods, we can improve our mental sharpness and help keep our brains healthy.

The battle of the fats

A typical brain is made up of 60 percent fat. With this composition, it is one of the fattiest organs in our body. Most of the brain’s fat is comprised of the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA. Our bodies cannot produce DHA or other Omega 3s, so the only way to “feed our brains” is to get these healthy fats from food.   

The best source of Omega 3s are freshwater fish. Among those fish with the highest content of Omega 3s are Salmon, Trout, Tuna, Halibut, Mackerel, and Sardines. You can also use concentrated fish oil for your daily Omega 3 needs.  If you are vegetarian, there are other sources such as flax seeds, flax oil, avocados, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and canola oil.

Unfortunately, not all fats are as good for you as Omega 3s. There is mounting evidence that one kind of fat can wreak havoc on your body and your brain: trans fats. Trans fats have developed such a bad reputation that New York City has banned its restaurants from using them! One recent study, conducted at Oregon Health and Sciences University, found that people with modest levels of trans fats in their blood had inferior brain functioning. The study concluded that trans fats, even in moderate amounts, may contribute to damaging  brain cells. 

What are trans fats? 

Trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to oils, forming “partially  hydrogenated oils” Watch out for these on nutrition labels!  Many fried foods contain trans fats.  Beware of anything fried or deep-fried, especially in restaurants.  This can include french fries, fried chicken, etc.  Pie crusts and processed pastries also often contain trans fats, as well as shortening.   Fatty red meats like ground beef contain natural trans fats, which can have harmful effects if consumed in excess.  However, the worst trans fats are those that are synthetically produced in shortening, and partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oil. 

To summarize: Omega-3 = good. Trans fats, hydrogenated oil, shortening = bad. 

Beyond Fats

The battle between good and bad fats plays an important role in brain health, but there are other equally important nutrients for the brain.  The same study conducted in Oregon found that people with higher levels of antioxidants and the vitamins B, D, C and E had better overall cognitive functioning and greater brain volume than other participants in the study.  Listed below are a few foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and other vital nutrients that you might consider adding to your diet:

Blueberries are one of the most antioxidant rich foods you can eat.  They contain compounds that boost our neuron signals, improving memory and overall cognitive functioning. Other foods rich in antioxidants include colorful fruits and vegetables, like kale, spinach, oranges, red grapes, kiwis, cherries, prunes and nuts.

Avocados contain antioxidants as well as oleic acid, a fatty acid that the brain uses to build myelin. Myelin provides insulation for the brain’s neurons; this insulation helps facilitate the rapid transfer of information between cells and can speed up cognitive functioning. Other foods with oleic acid include olives, pecans and almonds, and lentils. 

If you enjoy mustard, then your brain is in luck! Most mustard contains turmeric, a spice also used in East Asian, Thai and Indian dishes like curry.  Turmeric cleanses brain cells of harmful waste, which may contribute to dementia. Treat yourself to a daily teaspoon of turmeric, and treat your brain cells to a healthy cleansing.

Eat whole grains whenever you can – they are high in healthy carbohydrates and other vital nutrients. Carbohydrates help provide the brain with its most essential fuel: glucose. By eating carbs – especially for breakfast – you can improve your focus and concentration throughout the day.   Whole grain bread, brown rice, barley, quinoa, and millet are a few examples of healthy whole grains.

Luckily, the world is rich in brain-healthy foods. Remember to avoid trans fats and processed foods, and go for natural foods whenever you can. From fish, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lentils, nuts, and more, you have numerous ways to keep your diet interesting and your brain well-fueled.  Bon Appetit! 


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