Power your brain with food

February 24, 2012

Food, Nutrition and Diet

Mood, motivation and mental performance are powerfully influenced by diet.

by Rima Mehta — 

It is common for many of us to resolve to lose weight, but any sane person dreads a diet’s dulling effect on the brain. We know that the foods we eat affect the body, but they may have even more of an influence on how the brain works — including level of energy and how it handles its tasks.

Mood, motivation and mental performance are powerfully influenced by diet. Good nutrition for the brain is a diet low in saturated fats and sugars, and high in lean, protein-rich foods, legumes, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Certain foods play a role in preserving brain function, and a healthy diet goes a long way in optimizing brain health.

Biochemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, help the brain make the right connections. Food influences how these neurotransmitters operate. The more balanced the diet, the more balanced the brain function.

There are two types of proteins that affect neurotransmitters: (1) neurostimulants, such as proteins containing tyrosine, affecting the alertness transmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, and (2) calming proteins that contain tryptophan, which relaxes the brain. A brain fed a diet with the right balance of both stimulating and calming foods is optimal.

So, what to eat? Eggs are the best food source of choline, which is essential for making acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter or chemical brain messenger that is important for memory. Eat moderate amounts of lean beef, lamb and turkey, all of which are excellent sources of protein and B vitamins.

Turkey is rich in tryptophan. Lamb is rich in selenium, a potent antioxidant. Another rich source of selenium is the Brazil nut, which works together with other nutrients to help prevent brain cell damage. It is also important to include legumes in your diet. They are rich in vitamin B1 (thiamin), which helps convert food to energy and is also needed to synthesize acetylcholine.

Remember to eat more omega-3 fatty acids for proper brain-cell function, as well. A diet rich in omega-3s, including walnuts, flaxseeds, canola oil and fish, is very important.

Nutrients found in fruits, such as cranberries, blueberries, strawberries and grape juice, may help preserve cognitive function and improve working memory. They are anti-oxidant rich, protecting the brain from free-radical damage.

Berries are a good source of potassium, folate, riboflavin, vitamin B6, magnesium and copper — all excellent nutrients for brain health. Eat more spinach and sea vegetables like kelp to lessen potential brain damage from strokes and other neurological disorders.

Consume magnesium-rich whole grains, such as quinoa, barley and brown rice. Magnesium helps relax blood vessels, playing a role in preventing the constriction and dilation associated with migraine headaches.

Now you know a few of the foods to consider adding to your diet (barring any allergies or contraindications) if you are interested in optimum brain health, overall health and longevity, and aging more gracefully.


Rima Mehta holds a master’s degree in business management, is a certified holistic nutrition educator and is completing an advanced training program in wellness and yoga. She works with Advanced Internal Medicine in Chandler, Ariz. 480-361-1644, 480-326-0138, or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 30, Number 1, Feb/Mar 2011.

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