Join the food fight to keep your brain healthy
What you eat can have a huge impact on your brain. That stands to reason when you consider that our bodies are a whole entity. Each part of our body is connected. But the food-brain link is not often discussed.
Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan in their latest book on brain health, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, say, ‘We now know that what’s good for the body is also good for the brain, and the idea that “we are what we eat” really rings true when it comes to our cognitive processing.’
How old habits can hurt
Keeping the brain healthy can mean altering food habits developed as children. It’s so often about fighting the desire to eat a pleasurable treat—cake, perhaps—and eating an apple instead.
Technically, this food fight in the brain occurs in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal’s ventromedial region (in the middle of the forehead just above the eyes) is saying, ‘Take the cake! Take the cake!’
Meanwhile, the prefrontal’s dorsolateral area (near the temples) is saying, ‘Take the apple! Take the apple!’ It places more value on health than taste.
Small says there is good news, ‘When I help patients form better eating habits to regain and extend their youthful brain function, they often rave about the results once they’ve gotten past their initial resistance. These patients not only experience greater mental clarity, they begin to lose weight and enjoy sounder sleep.’
He adds that in two weeks, they start to crave their new food choices against their old ones.
Being overweight impacts on the brain
Excess body weight ages the brain.
For instance, research in France found that individuals with a high body mass index (BMI) had ‘difficulty processing some types of information: their abilities to learn word lists and substitute numbers for symbols were slower compared to people with normal body weight.
The rise of obesity (it’s estimated that more than 300 million people on our planet are currently obese) has also led to an increase in what’s called metabolic syndrome. 50 per cent of the obese suffer from this medical condition, which includes central obesity (excess body fat around the belly) and brings an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and memory loss.
‘Central obesity increases inflammation throughout the body, including the brain … [which] can cause neurodegeneration and cognitive decline.’ It can also lead to smaller brains, which increases the risk of dementia.
Again, there’s good news: ‘New research shows that losing weight leads to improved mental function and memory abilities.’
Knowing what to eat
Small talks about ‘free radicals’ that ‘rust’ our brains. ‘Luckily, eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidant fruits and vegetables helps fight off this oxidative [rusting] damage and protects our brains.’
‘Fruits and vegetables with vibrant colours, such as blueberries, pomegranates, kale, and broccoli, are filled with polyphenol antioxidants. Eating these and other fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and related forms of dementia.’
Eat like a Mediterranean
That’s Small’s recommendation: ‘The younger brain diet I recommend is very much like a Mediterranean-style diet that emphasises fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, vegetable oils (especially olive oil), fish, and other lean proteins.’
I suspect you’ll want to take a healthy brain with you into retirement. The findings and information from Small and Vorgan’s book can help you do that. It’s another part of a whole-of-life approach to retirement.