Nutrition fascinates me – I’ve been studying it for over twenty years and have a university degree in Dietetics. These days I’m particularly interested in the secrets of high-performance eating; the busier and bigger my life gets, the more I need to be on the ball. Food is an essential part of my success strategy. Put another way: if I didn’t know how to eat right for my brain, I’d be a mess.
Here are some of my top tips:
Kids and college students who eat breakfast perform dramatically better on academic tests. Having a solid breakfast helps you to concentrate, will make you more alert and creative, and results in far more productive mornings. Though something is better than nothing, it’s not enough to just grab a muffin and coffee. For maximal morning alertness and staying power, you need to include some protein: grab a yogurt; eat an egg; have some smoked salmon on a whole grain bagel; have a tall glass of milk or soy milk with your multigrain toast. In fact, for peak performance you should make sure that you include some protein in each of your main meals, at least three times a day.
Watch the coffee
Our brains do seem to like coffee as much as we do: regular coffee consumption may protect against developing dementias such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Having a cup of coffee does improve your reaction time, can give you a burst of energy, and may help you concentrate more sharply. However, one cup too much can push you past optimal concentration and performance and into the jitters. Pay attention to how much coffee your body and mind prefer, before automatically pouring yourself another cup.
Eat the right fats for your brain
I once heard an expert on psychiatric nutrition describe the relationship between fats and the brain. Our brains are more than 60% fat, and the nerve cells in our brain are constantly renewing their cell membranes. Unhealthy fats (i.e. saturated animal fats, or trans fats found in deep-fried foods) are made up of stiff poor quality fatty acids. When you eat these, they insert themselves into your nerve cell membranes. The result: your brain cells get stiffer than they should be and can’t function optimally. If you feed your brain healthy fatty acids, such as the omega-3 fatty acids from salmon and other fatty fish, these make your cell membranes more flexible and fluid, boosting your brain power and even your mood. Omega-3 fatty acids are arguably the best miracle food for your brain. They enhance memory, and slow age-related cognitive decline. Lack of omega-3’s can cause depression and memory problems, and may worsen symptoms of ADD.
Pick your carbs carefully
Your brain’s only true fuel is the sugar glucose. When you eat carbohydrates, they get broken down into glucose in the body, causing a rise in your blood sugar. This can provide a short-term boost to your memory and mental ability, but you don’t want to overdo it: too many high-glycemic carbs, such as a big plate of pasta or potatoes at lunch, can make you sleepy and harm performance. Your best bet is to eat healthy, whole-grain, high-fiber carbohydrate snacks throughout the day. Don’t wait too long between meals and snacks, as low blood sugar can dramatically affect memory and mental speed, and your ability to handle stress (I’ll typically start crying!).
Get your iron levels checked (if you’re a woman)
This health issue can be very subtle, and easily missed. Women of child-bearing age are particularly prone to low blood iron levels, especially if you diet perpetually, or grab snack foods on the run instead of having real meals. You don’t have to be anemic to feel the effects of low iron stores. Even a “low normal” reading may be enough to slow you down. Symptoms of low ferritin levels include fatigue, depression, weakness, and “brain fog”. If you haven’t been feeling up to speed, ask your doctor to check your ferritin, and aim for a level of forty-five mcg/L or higher (I was at 30 when I last checked, which is on the low end of normal but isn’t optimal and can even contribute to other problems such as hair loss). Writing this made me remember that I’m supposed to be taking those iron supplements again!
As you fly through your day, make it a habit to check in nutritionally with yourself every couple of hours. Choose foods that support your mind, and make it a great day.
Susan Biali is a physician and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Susan Biali, MD.
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