Updated: Mar 3
When you think about PERFORMANCE - feeling your best all day long and being able to transfer that energy into your work, your relationships, your social life and your self-development - there are numerous techniques and exercises you can do to create a strong mindset and boost your focus and energy. But what about nutrition? Can we eat specific foods that will take care of our brain health and energy levels, and are ‘superfoods’ are real thing?
The number one SUPER FOOD!
The first thing you always want to reach for when feeling tired, down, empty and just not great, is a glass of water. It may help get your brain working again. The human brain is made of around 75% water. When you are not properly hydrated the effects can be felt in your brain as symptoms like a headache, poor concentration and reduced short-term memory. This is because dehydration causes the level of energy production in the brain to decrease.
The brain is made from grey and white matter. The grey matter consists of about 100 billion neurons that receives and transmit signals and the white matter is made of dendrites and axons that the neurons use to transmit signals.
The brain is composed of about 75% water, and 60% of the dry matter consists of fat, which makes it the fattiest organ in the body! So it should come as no surprise that the brain actually needs fat to remain healthy and work correctly.
3 types of dietary fats
1. Polyunsaturated Fat
Polyunsaturated fats contain the essential fatty acids (EFAs) omega-3 and omega-6. Our brain needs these fats to function properly - studies also show that eating high quantities of omega-3 fatty acids are linked to reduced rates of depression - but our bodies are unable to produce them. That’s why it’s important that we include these fat sources in our diets.
An omega-3 fatty acid, DHA has been shown to help brain functions like memory, speaking ability, and motor skills. Increasing dietary levels of omega-3s has been shown to help improve conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD.
3. Saturated Fat
Saturated fat is actually one of the main components of brain cells, and is therefore necessary for healthy brain function. It also provides benefits for the liver and immune system and helps maintain proper hormone balance.
Fatty foods that promote brain health:
They promote a healthy blood flow (which a highly functioning brain) and memory skills, control blood sugar levels and prevent cognitive decline and blood clotting.
- nuts and seeds
- wild salmon, sardines, herring
- egg yolks
- olive and coconut oil
When adding fats to your diet you want to avoid eating too much of it (high in calories), but definitely include them. Try to get them out of whole, unprocessed food sources, and eat in moderation.
Other foods that promote brain health:
- blueberries and pomegranate: anti-oxidant, so it protects the brain from oxidative stress
- whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice: promote cardiovascular health, which takes care of a good blood flow
- beans and lentils: stabilise blood sugar (glucose) levels, the brain needs a steady stream of glucose for fuel
- freshly brewed tea and dark chocolate: anti-oxidant and they contain a small amount of caffeine which is a natural stimulant and can enhance focus and concentration
Energy and Blood Sugar Levels
Your blood sugar levels determine how good or bad you feel on any given day. If your blood sugar is stable, you will have plenty energy, your hunger will be controlled and mood swings will be prevented. If your blood sugar level is low, it can cause irritability, fatigue, lethargy, excessive hunger, moodiness, depression and cravings for sweets — all of the things that make any health program fail. Fat/weight loss and maintenance will be successful through managing your glucose levels too.
Your body will keep producing glucose throughout the night although you’re not eating. This is called gluconeogenesis. Add to that that your cortisol (stress hormone) level is up in the morning (it has to be to wake you up), which also raises your glucose level, and you’ll be at a pretty high amount when you wake up.
This is why you want to keep your morning meals protein based and add fats and fibre (nuts, avocado, green veggies, berries) for sustained mental focus and a slow steady rise in blood sugar which will control your appetite and cravings throughout the day.
If you add carbohydrates, choose complex and low glycemic ones like oatmeal. Foods high in carbohydrates will spike of the amount of sugar in your blood (high glycemic), and even more when you consume them in liquid form.
Eat your carbohydrates! You can refuel energy stores now (especially if you have exercised), your muscles will best take up energy consumed and your body is less likely to store kilojoules as fat. It will also improve your sleep!
Foods that control blood sugar:
- fatty fish
- leafy greens
- raw, cooked, roasted vegetables
- animal protein
- Greek yoghurt
- Berries, melon
- Whole grain, high fibre
- olive, coconut oil
- apple cider vinegar
Kamal Patel and the research team at Examine.com say:
“There is no such thing as a super food. ‘Super food’ is a popular buzzword you’ve probably seen on health blogs, in grocery stores, and from well-meaning friends. And every year, there’s a new trending ‘super food’. Whether the latest fad is a rare fruit from the Amazon or a seed that cures every disease known to man, most super foods build on hype, not evidence of real health benefits.”
They do however suggest 4 foods that have substantial evidence behind them:
Garlic has strong evidence to suggest it can improve cardiovascular health by reducing blood pressure and improving cholesterol profiles. Garlic also provides antioxidant benefits because it supports the activity of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant. There is also evidence to suggest garlic consumption may help lower fasting blood glucose levels. Including cloves of garlic in your diet is one of the healthiest habits you can have.
Dark berries, including blueberries, are a rich source of anthocyanins and pterostilbene. Anthocyanins are thought to be the probable reason why dark berries can influence brain activity. Older people can eat dark berries to improve memory. Though the mechanism behind this effect — increasing a growth factor called BDNF - could potentially work for young people as well, although this area of research is preliminary.
Spirulina is a blue-green alga with a 55–70% complete protein content that gained notoriety after NASA began investigating it for use in space missions. Additionally, spirulina contains a hefty dose of beta-carotene, several trace minerals, vitamins, and pro- and pseudo-vitamins. It boasts a good safety profile and provides anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Studies suggest that supplementing spirulina can dramatically decrease LDL-C, triglycerides, and total cholesterol while raising HDL-C. Animal research suggests spirulina may also be neuroprotective, but human studies are needed to confirm this effect.
Unfortunately, spirulina is the worst-tasting supplement on this list…
That’s why you will want to mix it with other foods. You can find plenty of recipes on the internet, but I’ll include one for a low glycaemic smoothie that I personally love.
Green spirulina berry smoothie:
- 1 cup of full fat, unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 cup of (frozen) berries
- ½ banana
- 1 handful of spinach
- 2 teaspoons of organic spirulina
Blend and enjoy!
4. Leafy greens
Leafy green vegetables contain high levels of nitrate, as do beetroot. In fact, beetroot has so much nitrate that it can serve as a potential ergogenic aid and pre-workout supplement in the form of beetroot juice.
Nitrates improve blood flow by dilating blood vessels. Eating nitrate-rich vegetables daily (such as arugula/rocket, collard greens, dill, turnip greens, and beetroot) can help lower blood pressure over time.
Kamal Patel says:
“’New’ superfoods are almost always too good to be true. Don’t rely on the media to tell you about new discoveries in the world of food and nutrition. Read the study, and not just the abstract! Avoiding fads and hype will save you money in the long run. Instead of looking for a shortcut, consider adding a couple of these foods to your diet and making progressive changes to your lifestyle habits.”
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