Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Brain Food vs. “Stupid Food”

In our article on Brain Foods, you learned about foods that can positively affect your brain and nervous system, benefiting mood, memory, alertness, and neuromuscular response time.  But did you know that you could be quashing your best efforts to be smart by eating dumb?  Brain Awareness Week may be over, but National Nutrition Month is going strong. So now is the time to make a few key dietary adjustments to what you do or don’t ingest – it’s not too late to get smart about brain food vs. "stupid food" habits.  To avoid browbeating your brain with what you consume, make sure you avoid the following nine damaging dietary practices.

1.  Don't eat an imbalanced diet

According to Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, author of the book The Anti-Alzheimer's Prescription: The Science-Proven Plan to Start at Any Age, how you eat is as important as what you eat – getting your diet out of balance can increase your chances of Alzheimer's disease.  If your goal is to push any Alzheimer’s risk to the most distant future, Fortanasce recommends getting the right balance of foods in your diet: specifically one-third carbohydrates, one-third protein, and one-third fat.  As well, his research indicates that the order in which you eat them matters. 

2.  Say phooey to tofu

Tofu in a bowlTofu is often considered a healthy food.  In moderate quantities, maybe so.  But research from Loughborough and Oxford Universities shows potential tofu risks – that excess tofu eating can increase your risk of memory loss in old age.  The 700-participant study (ages 52-98) revealed that those who ate tofu daily were at an increased risk for developing dementia or memory loss.  The risk increased more for those over 65.  The researchers suspect the phytoestrogens found in soy for this increased risk.

3.  Don't fry that fish

Research published in the science journal Neurology supports the many studies showing that eating fish can prevent stroke and memory loss, but this new study found that there was no benefit for those who ate fried fish.  Broiled or baked tuna consumed at least three times weekly indeed showed almost a 26 percent lower risk of brain lesions that could lead to dementia and stroke – but not from fried fish.

4.  Go easy on the sugar, sweetie

Incredibly, the average American chows down on roughly 47 pounds of cane sugar and 35 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per year, according to the USDA.  And yes, that's bad. Here's why: as this recent study reports, fructose can negatively affect both your memory and learning ability. 

In the study, researchers spent five days training rats to complete a maze, and then gave half of them a water-fructose solution along with their regular diet. After retesting the rats six weeks later, the sugared-up group of rats had elevated levels of triglycerides, insulin, and glucose – and, no surprise: performed poorly in the maze compared to the other group of rats. The researchers concluded that eating too much fructose appears to interfere with insulin’s ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar for energy – necessary for processing thoughts and emotions. 

5.  Skip the white bread

Go easy on the white bread. Turns out that it's bad for the brain. White bread spikes insulin levels, which Dr. Fortanasce states, causes insulin-degrading brain enzymes to become overtaxed from the work of removing insulin.  The problem – the sudden overload of carbohydrates distracts the enzymes from doing their other job: eliminating the toxic beta-amyloid proteins that engender Alzheimer's disease. 

Sliced white bread

The trick is to keep your overall glycemic index level good and low. So if you really want that white bread or muffin, don’t eat it by itself but rather with a protein source, which can keep your glucose level from spiking.  To help you plan out meals without spiking sugar levels, follow the The Franklin Institute’s chart on the glucose levels in many common foods.

7.  Low carb, maybe, but don’t do a no-carb diet

Some who go on a low-carb diet go overboard (whole hog, if you will), cutting carbohydrates completely from their diet.  Bad idea.  A new Tufts University study published in the February 2009 issue of the journal Appetite supports already known facts, that carbs are an important fuel for the brain.  When you eat carbohydrates, the body turns it into glucose, and glucose then fuels brain activity.  The study shows that a no-carb diet makes you mentally confused and forgetful.  Study participants developed slow reaction times and poorer scores on visual-spatial memories compared to the control group.

The good news is that the condition is reversible;  after a few weeks back on carbohydrates, study participants’ memory-test performance improved.

8.  Saturated fats with sugar can double your trouble

Not only do we know that sugar is bad for the brain, but according to this recent study, a diet that is high in both fat and sugar appears to cause damage to the hypothalamus – the area of the brain that regulates both energy and appetite. The damage to the hypothalamus from too much fat and sugar can make it harder to lose weight, according to the scientists. 

9. Avoid dehydration

You may not consider water a food item, but we must also include water in things you can ingest for improved thinking.  And, by the same token, not hydrating sufficiently can malnourish your brain.  When you become dehydrated, your brain tissue literally shrinks and, apparently, so does your cognition.  Many studies indicate that dehydration reduces cognitive function, impairing your short-term memory, your ability to focus, and your ability to make decisions.

So drink up (nonalcoholic) and eat smart and you will literally be smarter.

Woman drinking water

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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