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Brain Food

June 25, 1997|RANDY BLUN | PSYCHOLOGY TODAY

You are, as the expression goes, what you eat. After all, the very tissues of your body, the fuels that power every cell, the hormones that keep you humming, all must ultimately be furnished by the foods you eat.

No surprise, then, that over the past 15 years, perhaps spurred most intensely by health concerns and the performance demands of elite athletes, a burgeoning body of literature has documented the intimate connections between food and health. At the same time, an interest in nutrition has moved from the fringes of cultural life squarely into the mainstream.

But that turns out to be a very neck-down view of things. For while the foods we eat have measurable effects on the body's performance, they may prove to have an even more critical influence on how the brain handles its tasks. The brain is an extremely metabolically active organ, making it a very hungry one, and a picky eater at that. The idea that the right foods or the natural neurochemicals they contain can enhance mental capabilities--help you concentrate, tune sensorimotor skills, keep you motivated, magnify memory, speed reaction times, defuse stress, perhaps even prevent brain aging--is not idle speculation.

Nutritional neuroscience, as it is called, is barely in its infancy. But it's already turning up some very heady findings. Among them:

* A diet that draws heavily on fatty foods and only lightly on fruits and vegetables isn't just bad for your heart and linked to certain cancers--it may also be a major cause of depression and aggression in North America. Such a diet is particularly common among men.

* The health of your brain depends not only on how much fat you eat but on what kind it is. Intellectual performance requires the specific type of fat found most commonly in fish. Even diets that adhere to commonly recommended levels of fats, but of the wrong kind, can undermine intelligence. What makes this finding awkward is that certain oils widely touted as healthy for the heart are especially troublesome for the mind. The findings also raise serious concerns about formulas fed to the vast majority of American infants.

* It's possible to boost alertness, memory and stress resistance by supplying food components that are precursors of important brain neurotransmitters, but so far they have been tested only on people with nutritional deficiencies. However, given the number of women who regularly diet, that group may include more people than researchers imagined.

* Sugar can make you sharp--if you can figure out the right dose at the right time. A kind of Gatorade for the mind may be available in the U.S. within a few years.

* Carbohydrates--especially when eaten with no protein or fat--may indeed be mentally soothing.

* Mood and mental performance are powerfully influenced by the B vitamins. Unfortunately, marginal deficiency in many B vitamins is widespread in North America.

While it's easy to dismiss the intensifying interest in nutrition as a selfish search for the formula or supplement that will turn us into Einsteins and confer that competitive edge, there's evidence that we're also seeking more. An abiding interest in the nutrient qualities of the foods we consume--even if honored more in the breach than the observance--also reflects our deep yearning for reconnection to the natural world and heightened awareness of how it sustains us. Call it deep nutrition.

Here's how to construct an eating plan that can help turn your brain into a lean, mean, thinking machine and, not incidentally, help protect against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, premature aging, obesity and other ills.

As a general rule, when strolling the produce aisles, think color. Anything brightly colored is brain food, loaded with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that maintain brain health and enhance mental performance. And if all else fails, just like the ad says, you shudda had a V-8.

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Protein: Contains four calories per gram. Should supply 15% of your total calorie intake.

Needed to manufacture brain tissue, enzymes, neurotransmitters and myriad other brain chemicals. Choose 5 ounces (women) to 8 ounces (men) animal protein from any of the following lean sources: skinless poultry; lean meats; organ meats; fatty fish such as salmon, herring, tuna and sardines, plus other seafood; skim and low-fat dairy products. Increase intake of soy protein foods such as calcium-fortified tofu, soy milk and textured vegetable protein; soy foods contain isoflavones and thousands of other beneficial compounds animal foods lack.

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Carbohydrates: Contain four calories per gram. Should supply 65% of calories.

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