We often hear about the ways food affects our bodies, but mainly in relation to our physical health. Various food companies tout health-related benefits to their products, such as increased energy, lowered cholesterol, and fat loss. Lots of advice exists on how to keep our bodies in top shape.
Typically when something is physically wrong with our bodies, we often look to our diets to figure out if what we’re eating is harmful. Yet, the same concerns do not occur to us when something seems wrong with our brains.
When we deal with memory loss, in particular, our diets don’t enter our minds. Turns out, foods also have a strong effect on how our brains function — certain foods can cause memory loss while others may result in memory boosts.
We have long suspected that the nutrients in our food have a significant effect on our cognitive processes and emotions, but the knowledge we have on this subject has only recently been expanded upon. Up until now, the rest of our bodies’ ailments have been given more focus.
Food affects our brains through our guts, the same way it affects our other organs. When we ingest food, our gut hormones enter the brain and influence our cognitive ability. Our diets have been affecting our brain capacity and evolution over thousands of years.
People tend to only think of calories in terms of weight loss and weight gain, but the number of calories you take in not only affects your body, but it affects your brain as well. If you regularly eat too few calories, your level of awareness will be impaired. Likewise, if you consistently eat too many calories, it can lead to cellular damage in the brain. The foods those calories come from also matter. The foods that benefit the rest of our bodies, like fruits and vegetable, also benefit our brains. It is no surprise that foods high in calories but low in other nutrients, like fast food, can impair brain function.
Several studies have found evidence of food’s impact on the brain. A study of 52 people found that unhealthy diets caused lower levels of sugar metabolism in the brain, and a subsequent decrease in healthy brain tissue. Another study of about 18,000 people found that unhealthy diets are associated with lower scores on learning and memory tests. These factors put people at an increased risk for Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other brain-related illnesses. These illnesses are related to unhealthy diets, and lead to t memory degradation.
What are these “unhealthy” brain foods aside from the frequently admonished fast food? Some of these foods include refined carbohydrates that are both processed and full of sugar. Foods high in sugar can cause frequent inflammation in the brain, which leads to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. The inflammation happens in the hippocampus (the part of the brain involved with memory), and it can have detrimental effects on our brain-related health. Inflammation is your body’s reaction to injury. Cells in the hippocampus become inflamed when overcome with ingredients like fat and sugar as a response to the harmful environment.
Even one meal with a high glycemic index can impair someone’s memory because the body digests refined carbs quickly and so its blood-sugar levels spike. Whole grains are therefore recommended by nutritionists over refined carbs for brain health because they are rich in B vitamins that work to reduce inflammation of the brain, thus improving memory.
Another source of brain inflammation are foods that include industrially produced trans fats. Naturally occurring trans fats, like those found in foods like butter and olive oil, are not as much of a concern. Our brain primarily takes issue with the manufactured trans fats in foods like shortening, hydrogenated vegetable oils, and margarine. In fact, olive oil is an ideal fat for brain health!
Processed meats are another source of brain cell degradation. Such meats include sausage, bacon, and even deli meats. It’s recommended for us to eat unprocessed meats like chicken, beef, and pork. But red meat needs to be eaten in moderation. Too much of it can contribute to inflammation.
How about foods that are good for your brain? One good brain food is fatty fish like salmon, cod, and tuna. They are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids that benefit the brain. Dark chocolate is also a good option, but sugar is not beneficial, so it is recommended to eat chocolate that is on the bitter end, with at least 72% cocoa.
Spices and herbs are also beneficial for the brain: think turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon. These spices are filled with antioxidants that reduce inflammation in the brain. Coffee, as well as black and green teas have been shown to increase memory and decrease chances of dementia.
Red wine is another beneficial beverage because it contains resveratrol, which is a nutrient found in the skin of red grapes. However, alcohol does contribute to brain inflammation, so wine should be ingested in moderation to avoid those negative effects. Fruits and vegetables are, of course, on the good-for-brain foods list. When eaten daily, they are helpful to both memory retention and general brain function.
The next time you find yourself forgetting simple things and wondering where your mind has gone, think about what you’ve eaten and how that may have affect your brain. You might not be a forgetful person after all! It could just be your diet. Remember: your memory loss might not be permanent, after all. There are things you can eat to reverse the damage to your brain, and feed its functions with the foods it needs.