Healthy foods are typically thought of as being good for cardiovascular health and disease prevention. We eat them to get adequate nutrients, to feel better, to stave off weight gain, and sometimes to combat specific dietary issues. Those who study these matters know that it’s actually quite remarkable how directly and thoroughly what we eat affects how we look and how we live. What we don’t spend quite as much time talking about, however, is how healthy eating can affect our brains.
The simplest way to think about it is that our brains are no different from our other organs (or really anything else in our bodies) in that they can be directly impacted by what we consume. Food and drink can affect memory, alertness and sharpness, disease prevention, and most any other health-related aspect of the brain. So really, this is something we ought to think about right alongside heart health as one of the most important underlying reasons for good, balanced nutrition. It’s also a reason to seek out specific “brains foods” that can stimulate your mind and keep your brain healthy.
The following five foods fit into this category for various wonderful reasons.
Fatty fish are commonly cited as healthy foods for all sorts of different reasons. They actually came to our attention for this specific write-up by way of a piece aimed at chess players, who have to stay as sharp as possible at all times to master the intricacies of their craft. In that piece it was pointed out that fatty fish is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which actually directly assist with the growth of brain cells, and nerve cells as well. Taking this a step further, more (and fresher) brain cells mean better memory and concentration. These are clear short-term brain benefits, and in the long term we also know that the same Omega-3 fatty acids in adequate quantity can help to delay declines in mental ability and even ward off specific diseases like Alzheimers’s. Salmon is the most commonly mentioned “fatty fish,” though mackerel, trout, and sardines are also very high in Omega-3s.
The first benefit of broccoli for brain health is that it has a high antioxidant content. You’ve probably read about antioxidants as vague, healthy nutrients that combat numerous diseases, and it’s true that they tend to be among the healthiest elements of a lot of natural fruits and vegetables. What they actually do specifically is to combat oxidative stress, or the release of free radicals (harmful results of the body’s energy-generating process) to the body. It’s these free radicals that are responsible for some degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, and antioxidants can slow the process. Broccoli has additional benefits for brain health as well, however. It’s high in choline, a nutrient that assists in brain development, and it’s also extremely rich in vitamin K, which has been connected to lasting memory. The vitamin specifically helps to form some of the healthy fats so essential to brain cells.
As with fatty fish, this is a suggestion we noted specifically because of its recommendation for activity that requires sustained concentration. In this case walnuts were actually mentioned in an article aimed at people playing poker and other gambling-related games, which can carry financial risk if concentration wanes even for a moment. And in fact these little nuts (which actually somewhat resemble brains, oddly enough) were highlighted for much the same reason fatty fish were mentioned for chess players: they contain rich levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA. We don’t need to delve into the specific benefits of such fatty acids again, but it’s worth mentioning walnuts because for some people they’re easier and more convenient to consume than some of the fish mentioned above. That is to say, if you’re interested in boosting your memory and concentration but you don’t eat fish or have time to prepare it regularly, a handful of walnuts now and then can make up the difference!
It’s not uncommon to hear that dark chocolate is good for us. It’s a little bit like red wine in fact, in that both are often recommended as healthy vices within nutritional diets. However, we don’t often tend to hear much about the specifics of why a moderate amount of dark chocolate can be good for us. Well, it has a lot to do with brain health actually, and once again it comes down to antioxidants. More specifically, antioxidant nutrients called flavonoids are packed into dark chocolate, and have been proven in studies to boost memory. To put it simply, people who eat dark chocolate regularly often have slightly sharper memories than those who do not, and it’s believed there could also be some long-term benefits regarding mental decline as well. Dark chocolate also joined walnuts as a type of food that’s been shown to put people in better moods, though it may simply be because people enjoy eating it.
Finally, we come to green tea, a type of drink with some familiar health benefits. The clearest brain-related perk to drinking green tea is that caffeine can actually provide mental boosts and even improve memory, in addition to alertness and clarity. As you might guess by now, green tea also helps prevent Alzheimer’s. However green tea also has benefits where another aspect of mental health is concerned. Rather than helping exclusively with memory, focus, and other things related to brain performance, green tea supplies an amino acid called L-theanine that has calming, relaxing effects on the brain. This actually makes this type of tea a unique sort of substance to feed the brain, in that it can increase alertness and facilitate calm at the same time.
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