Good Food or Antioxidants today?
Date: Sunday, April 19 @ 04:18:15 EDT
Topic: Good Food
If you were looking through the Pete Miller’s menu, would you rather have the Bacon Blue Cheeseburger or the North Atlantic Salmon? If you’re stressing about your weight, you’ll probably lean towards the salmon. And if that isn’t enough pressure already, you may also consider your bio test tomorrow, because what you eat not only determines the way you look; it may also determine the way you think. Where’s your World’s Healthiest Foods Encyclopedia when you need it?
In a recent edition of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, UCLA neurosurgery professor Dr. Fernando Gómez-Pinilla reviewed 160 studies from the past three decades that all lead to the same conclusion: nutrition affects brain function. It makes sense: the brain requires energy to function, and our primary source of energy is food. The majority of these studies focus on specific nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids or antioxidants. Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, for example, is an integral component of brain phospholipids, and thus essential to cognitive function. Our bodies do not produce DHA; we have to get it from food. Other nutrients, like antioxidants, aid cognitive function by improving transmission at the synapses, the junctions between nerve cells.
Does your brain hurt yet?
You may have heard of some of these nutrients: recent media hype makes antioxidants pretty hard to escape. Every Odwalla juice or Cliff bar proudly lists the nutrients in bold print. Odwalla even markets its apple-raspberry flavored “Super Focus” as a “mental energy juice drink” that purportedly “enhance[s] concentration.”
Coca-Cola even created “Diet Coke Plus,” fortified with nutrients like zinc, which reportedly staves off mental decay, and B vitamins, which reportedly positively affect memory. (Meanwhile, the FDA has issued a warning because fortifying carbonated beverages with nutrients is not considered “appropriate,” nor are there sufficient percentages of nutrients in the drink to merit the “plus” label.)
Between antioxidants, flavonols and polyphenols, eating these days seems more complicated than a chem midterm. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, refers to our fascination with nutrients as a “national eating disorder,” writing that Americans are “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthy.” We’ve become captivated. But if eating seems more like a science project than a source of sustenance, the stress might negate any of your diet’s cognitive benefits.
But can you have your nutrient-enriched superfood and eat it, too?
If you want to have your healthiest Spring Quarter yet, forget about focusing on the confusing world of chemicals and nutrients. Concentrate instead on eating quality food and deriving pleasure from sitting down and enjoying a meal. You don’t have to sacrifice your appreciation of food for nutrition’s sake; you can reap the cognitive benefits of nutrients without knowing a single thing about synaptic plasticity or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. You can eat chocolate without worrying if you’ve gotten enough antioxidants today or eat your breakfast without conscious awareness that the Vitamin D in your milk might prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s in, oh, fifty years.
Eating to improve brain function doesn’t have to be neuroscience; in fact, it’s really very simple. Rather than stressing yourself out about the proper ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids, concentrate on fostering a healthy attitude and relationship with food, and your brain will thank you for it.
Ditch the supplements and the power bars in favor of real food
Instead of cramming that power bar in your mouth while walking down Sheridan, make the time to have a proper meal with a group of friends. Part of having a good spring quarter is minimizing stress. Sure, you could ingest magnesium for its mood-elevating qualities. Or you could improve your mood and de-stress by socializing and eating with friends.
Don’t stress about your daily values
“Forget about all the worries about nutrients,” Northwestern neurobiology and physiology research associate professor Dr. Theresa Horton says. “If you’re worried, pop one multivitamin pill. That’s sufficient. If you look at your plate and you see a rich palate of color from fresh fruits and vegetables and some protein source that’s not fried and greasy, you’re going to be just fine.”
Learn the geography of your grocery store
When you go to the supermarket, Horton suggests, keep things simple and shop around the periphery. Why? The processed, bad-for-you foods are kept in the middle and the fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats are kept in refrigeration around the border. Similarly, in the dining halls, bypass the pizza and soft serve machine in favor of the salad bar and fresh fruit. The real key to optimizing brain function is diversity of foods. “By eating a diverse diet - the more color the better - you’re going to get all the nutrients you need,” Horton says.
Don’t forget about the most important meal
And another way to make this the healthiest spring quarter ever? Don’t skip breakfast. An August 2008 study published in Pediatrics found a notable short-term improvement in cognitive function and alertness in breakfast eaters. Additionally, be sure to eat frequently. Eating five to six meals throughout the day not only boosts metabolism, it has been shown to improve mood and memory. In a September 2008 study published in Appetite that compared grazing throughout the day with two large meals, researchers found verbal reasoning accuracy increased by as much as 40 percent.
Getting sufficient brain-boosting nutrients doesn’t need to be a complicated ordeal. If you’re the kind of person who is enthralled by the chemistry of food, feel free to gorge yourself with nutrient knowledge. But if you want to enjoy the benefits of brain-boosting nutrients without the hassle, there’s no need to stress. Optimizing brain function is really this simple: eat a diversity of healthy foods, eat breakfast and eat often.
And next time you’re at Pete Miller’s, choose the salmon. It’s full of B vitamins, Vitamin D, selenium, and magnesium. But to put it simply, it just might give your brain the boost it needs.